U.S. Protest Targets African Access To AIDS Drugs

Thursday April 22 1:00 AM ET

U.S. Protest Targets African Access To AIDS Drugs

By Lisa Richwine

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Hundreds of demonstrators rallied in Washington Wednesday to protest at policies which they say protect drug companies but make AIDS drugs too expensive for people in Africa.

Chanting, waving signs and in some cases defying police, AIDS activists and environmental and trade groups demonstrated in favor of legislation sponsored by Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., an Illinois Democrat.

Jackson's bill would forbid the Clinton administration to retaliate against any African country that tried to use certain trade provisions to obtain cheaper AIDS drugs. About 22.5 million people in Africa are infected with HIV or have AIDS.

The United States needs to ``give African governments and African corporations an opportunity to produce medicines that will be widely distributed among the people of sub-Saharan Africa so (they) can live,' Jackson told supporters gathered in a downtown park during lunch hour.

Health and consumer groups have criticized the Clinton administration for pressuring developing countries on behalf of drug companies to abandon trade approaches that could help them obtain cheaper medications.

Drug makers and U.S. officials say the trade powers these countries might use violate patent rights and would hurt companies' ability to invest in future AIDS drugs.

The trade powers include compulsory licensing and parallel importing. The first, legal under World Trade Organization rules, allows countries to grant a local company authority to make cheaper, generic versions of drugs even while the products are still protected by patents. Parallel imports let countries buy drugs through third parties at lower prices.

A drug industry spokesman said pharmaceutical companies opposed compulsory licenses to protect patents on AIDS drugs that cost hundreds of millions of dollars apiece to develop.

``It's our industry that developed life-saving protease inhibitors, and our companies continue to invest billions of dollars into AIDS research to develop even better new generation medicines,' said Jeff Trewhitt of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PHRMA), a trade association representing drug makers.

The disputed trade powers have become a rallying point for AIDS groups that say the gap is growing between those who can afford medications and those who cannot.

Carrying signs reading ``Human Rights, Not Corporate Rights' and ``Just Say No to Drug Lobbyists,' demonstrators marched through city streets to PHRMA's offices in downtown Washington.

``We're not going to allow our president (Clinton) and vice president (Al Gore) to bully and harass and kill people in Africa,' Julie Davids of the gay activist group ACT-UP Philadelphia told the rally.

About a dozen protesters refused police orders to disperse. A Washington police spokesman could not immediately say whether any had been arrested.