Ending AIDS: Civil Society Mobilizes for an AIDS Free Generation

This past week saw activists from around the world converge on the nation’s capital to support the fight against HIV/AIDS. Twenty-seven years since the first International AIDS conference in Atlanta, the world has witnessed tremendous change. Today, the face of the fight has changed. Scientists, health workers and the community of people living with HIV have provided ways to  manage the disease and effectively prevent its transmission. A cure for all, however, remains just outside our grasp. So the conferences continue. Billions of dollars have been funneled into combating HIV/AIDS by various national, international, and private groups.  At its core, however, the problem remains the same—fighting discrimination, increasing awareness and coordination, and intensifying political and financial commitments to eradicate AIDS.

On July 24, the people showed they still care about these problems. A massive demonstration of activists protesting the failure of policy makers, politicians, and businesses throughout the world to join the fight to eradicate HIV/AIDS (with more than words) marched on the White House. The protest brought together a diverse mix of people against the backdrop of the International AIDS Conference, thanks to the We Can End Aids team.

The march began from five separate areas, each dedicated to a different demand, and converged on the White House where protestors attached red ribbons, condoms, money and clean syringes (tools to combat AIDS) to the White House. All the while hundreds of protestors chanted that the “world is watching,” “generics for all, people over profits,” “AIDS drugs now” and “tax the rich.”

Public Citizen’s Global Access to Medicines Program showed up in force along the People Over PhRma Profits branch —advocating for lower costs for AIDS drugs, dropping the Novartis case in India, and fighting against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Public Citizen, Healthgap, MSF, the American Medical Students Association and other activists marched to the headquarters of Novartis to protest a lawsuit that will threaten the global generic medicine infrastructure. Novartis, a large pharmaceutical company, is suing India on the basis that their patent laws let generic drug manufacturers produce cheap drugs. Although the patent that Novartis is wrangling over in the courts is not an AIDS drug, the fallout from the case could lead to higher prices for 2nd and 3rd line antiretroviral drugs if Novartis prevails. Activists cried “shame” and lied down in front of the Novartis office to symbolize the lives Novartis is taking through prohibitive drug prices.

Next, activists marched to the headquarters of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), the executive agency responsible for the secret negotiations over the TPP. Beneath an over-sized pharma fat cat pulling the strings of an actor dressed as Ambassador Ron Kirk, Obama’s United States Trade Representative (USTR), activists demanded Kirk’s resignation.

Since Kirk was appointed by President Obama as the United States Trade Representative in 2009, TPP negotiators have been discussing a free trade agreement that threatens to lengthen and broaden the patent protection for medicines in the Pacific Rim countries and impose harsh intellectual property (IP) regimes. USTR expects countries to fall in line with their proposed draconian IP regime as a condition of joining this free trade agreement with the U.S. All five branches of the movement united at Lafayette Square, where they marched to the White House together. Activists shouted “fire, fire Ron Kirk,” “Ron Kirk, Trans-Pacific free trade deal kills people,” and “pills cost pennies, greed costs lives.” USTR answers to the president, and President Obama could easily alleviate the access to medicines issue by endorsing various policy proposals, saving thousands of lives. For starters, the President should fulfill his commitments to fund the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

Crucial to the fight against AIDS, the Global Fund has supported AIDS treatment for 3.6 million people, TB treatment for 9.3 million (which kills one out of four AIDS patients), and paid for 270 million malaria nets. With all this success, it’s hard to believe they would have trouble finding funding, but they do. Since 2008, funding for the Global Fund has flat-lined. President Obama has promised to deliver $1.05 billion to the Global Fund, but in truth his budget reflected around 65 per cent of this commitment. Additionally, in 2011 PEPFAR set out to treat 6 million by 2013, 1.5 million more than the four and half million currently on treatment. With PEPFAR’s budget being slashed by $500 million in the FY 2013 budget, it is hard to see how it will do that. In fact, Eric Goosby, the United States Global AIDS coordinator, estimates PEPFAR needs $670 million dollars more than the baseline, over a billion dollars more than is currently allotted. By simply fulfilling his promises, President Obama would dramatically alter the AIDS landscape.

Beyond meeting commitments, policies such as federal funding for drug research, government purchase plans, advocating or at least not obstructing the use of compulsory licenses by developing countries, or removing the unnecessarily harsh IP provisions in U.S. FTAs, the pertinent one today being the TPP, would increase access to medicine. Public Citizen’s Global Access to Medicines Program has attended many rounds of TPP negotiations to offer negotiators and countries alike information on the impact of these harsh provisions. From introducing mandatory patent-term extensions to increasing terms of data exclusivity, the TPP’s expansive overhaul of foreign country’s IP regime threaten to decrease access to life-saving HIV/AIDS drugs.

For some, AIDS may feel like a faraway, intangible issue; something removed from their daily life. Especially for some of the younger generation in rich countries, the disease may sometimes seem like a relic of the past. This could not be further from the truth. In Mr. Obama’s backyard alone, 3 per cent of D.C. residents live with AIDS. In many parts of the world, the rates are even higher. Some southern African countries suffer rates of AIDS infections over 15 per cent. Poor, vulnerable populations bear a disproportionate burden, but the disease is not confined to any single gender, age or race. Furthermore, many people living with HIV (PLHIV) face remarkable challenges, including otherworldly discrimination. In some cases and some places, PLHIV may be thrown out of schools, denied access to travel, not allowed to work or tossed in jail. Understanding the plight of a person afflicted with AIDS is only the first step. Action is needed. If civil society keeps up the pressure on policy makers to implement life-saving programs, stop obstructing access to generics, and fully fund scientists to find a cure, we will finally see an AIDS-free generation.

James Cormie, Legal Fellow at Public Citizen’s Global Access to Medicines Program

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