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Activists protest costly AIDS medicines

By Hank Sims, Daily Planet staff
Saturday December 01, 2001

About 100 activists gathered in West Berkeley Friday to condemn the economic policies of the pharmaceutical industry and to demand a new system for the manufacturing and distribution of essential medicines. 

Specifically, they said, the industry should acknowledge that the only way to deal with the catastrophic AIDS epidemic in Africa, Asia and other parts of the Third World is to allow those areas to manufacture generic versions of AIDS medications. 

Joan Claybrook, president of the consumer activist group Public Citizen, was the keynote speaker at the rally. She said the pharmaceutical industry – which she said spent $185 million last year in lobbying and campaign contributions – exerts too much influence in Washington. 

She said the industry’s power was apparent last month, when Tommy Thompson, secretary of Health and Human Services, threatened to cancel the patent on one of Bayer’s products during a nationwide anthrax panic. 

“If the government can threaten to take away patent protection for Cipro, as Thompson did, why can’t it do the same for AIDS drugs and other critically needed medicines?” she asked. 

A number of protesters affiliated with Hemophilia Justice also brought attention to the 10,000 hemophiliacs who were infected with AIDS through Bayer Pharmaceuticals hemophilia drugs produced in Berkeley. 

The rally, which was in conjunction with World AIDS Day events around the globe, began at the Berkeley offices of Roche, a manufacturer of several HIV-fighting retroviral drugs, at the corner of Seventh Street and Ashby Avenue. Protesters later marched down Seventh Street to the Bayer Pharmaceuticals plant at 800 Dwight Way. 

At least 15 members of the Berkeley Police Department were on hand to provide crowd control or to issue “symbolic arrests” if needed. The crowd never became unruly, though, and no one wished to be arrested. 

Mark Hunter, a UC Berkeley doctoral student who is researching AIDS prevention in South Africa, said that affordable medicines would not only treat people who are currently HIV-positive, but would play a major role in preventing new cases of the disease. 

He said that HIV-positive people who are able to afford the retroviral “drug cocktail” treatment – which has proven to be the most effective way of preventing the onset of AIDS – are, in many cases, less likely to pass the virus on to their partners. 

More importantly, he said, many people in South Africa refuse to get tested for HIV, because if the test comes back positive, it is “nothing but a death sentence.” 

However, he said, the price of these drugs is far more than the average person can afford.  

Phillip Machingura, a Zimbabwean activist currently working in the United States, agreed that low-cost drugs helped the prevention effort in poor countries. 

“I have friends (in Zimbabwe) who suspect they might be HIV-positive but will not get tested because they fear the result,” he said. “These people are the walking dead. They have no hope.” 

Machingura said that his cousin recently died of an AIDS-related illness because she could not afford the medication. 

“She’s the fourth person in my family to die from HIV/AIDS in the past two years,” he said. 

“People are dying within reach of hospitals, doctors and clinics who have their hands tied behind their backs because they don’t have medication to give them.” 

The solution, as Machingura and many of the other activists present see it, is for the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture AIDS medicines to relinquish – or at least not actively defend – their patents on the drugs. 

The patents allow the holders – usually, those who invented the medicine – exclusive rights to manufacture the product. They then have an almost unlimited ability to determine the product’s price. 

Berkeley Vice-Mayor Maudelle Shirek condemned the patent process insofar as it pertained to life-and-death issues, and called it a peculiarity of capitalism. 

“The very system that extols competition as a way of life makes it illegal to have competition that could save lives,” she said. 

“From America to Africa, from anthrax to AIDS to cancer, we demand affordable medications for all illnesses – now.” 

Pharmaceutical companies routinely defend the patent system by saying that it allows them to recoup the costs of developing new drugs. Different studies show that the cost of developing each new drug brought to market is between $110 and $500 million. 

A written statement handed out by a consultant for Roche underscored this point. 

“Roche believes that protection of intellectual property through patents promotes public health by encouraging the discovery and development of medicines vital to patients around the world,” it read. 

The statement went on to say that Roche would not seek a profit on HIV medicines sold in the poorest countries in Africa. 

Jackie Cottrell, a spokesperson for GlaxoSmithKline, another major drug manufacturer, said on Friday that allowing generic versions of drugs would not necessarily help combat the African AIDS crisis. 

“One of our bigger arguments is that it’s not necessarily an issue of generic versus name-brand medicines,” she said. “Most generic drugs are still not available in Third World countries, either.” 

Hunter called this argument a “red herring.” 

“Price, without doubt, is still the major handicap,” he said. “To use infrastructure as an excuse not to give out these drugs is ridiculous.” 

Members of Hemophilia Justice marched with their faces painted red. They carried signs reminding people of the estimated 10,000 people who contracted AIDS through tainted hemophilia medication. 

The members of the group charge that Bayer and two other drug companies collected blood from prisons and other questionable sources years after HIV was diagnosed as the cause of AIDS. The blood was later processed and made into clotting drugs for people who suffer from the bleeding disorder, passing HIV from donor to recipient. 

Beatrice Vieux-Brieux carried a poster of her son, Laurent, who died three years ago after contracting HIV from a Bayer hemophilia drug. She wept as she spoke of his death. 

“I was working three jobs to buy the drugs that killed him,” she said. “They knowingly infected my son and 10,000 other hemophiliacs.” 

“I will be here every year until justice is done.” 

In 1997, the Bayer Corporation settled a class-action lawsuit brought by hemophiliacs who had contracted AIDS from their drugs. Each plaintiff in the case was awarded $100,000. 

Bayer Pharmaceuticals could not be reached for comment.