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Letter in Chicago Tribune on AIDS Drug Availability in South Africa

This letter to the editor, by Health Research Group Deputy Director Peter Lurie, M.D., MPH, appeared in the Chicago Sun Times on September 25, 1999.

Your Sept. 13 editorial “Sensible truce on AIDS drugs” describes the South African government’s decision to review–not “withdraw,” as stated in the editorial–its law seeking to procure affordable, lifesaving drugs for its growing HIV -positive population as a “sensible truce.” Only someone living in a country where most people have access to anti-HIV drugs could come to that conclusion. The brutal fact is that today in South Africa AIDS will claim more than 400 people. Some of these lives could have been prolonged by medications that are readily available in the U.S. but are unaffordable in South Africa and most other developing nations due to drug company price gouging.

South Africa is struggling to implement mechanisms that are legal according to World Trade Organization (WTO) patent protection agreements. These mechanisms are not, as you suggest, “legalized pirating,” nor are the drugs involved “bootleg” drugs. Presumably the drug industry knows that the mechanisms the South Africans wish to employ are legal; perhaps that is why the industry has failed to bring a challenge to the South African law at the WTO. Instead it has mounted a campaign in the courts, which would demonstrate to other developing countries what will befall them should they follow in South Africa’s footsteps.

In effect your promise to HIV-positive South Africans is this: Just wait–thanks to drug company research, affordable lifesaving medications are on the way. This same promise was put forth when the drug AZT was proved effective more than a decade ago, again when drugs related to AZT were developed and now with the discovery of the new protease inhibitor drugs.

Today none of these drugs is available to any significant degree in developing countries. Another round of empty promises will not sustain life in South Africa and other developing nations–but increased access to AIDS drugs just might.