By Dave Crampton
April 20, 2001
The South African government claimed a major victory after 39 of the worlds biggest pharmaceutical companies dropped their lawsuit challenging a 1997 law that provides cheap replicas of patent drugs.
The legal decision marks a turning point that could lead to millions of AIDS/HIV sufferers throughout Africa getting treatment through cheaper drugs. It is also a major public relations embarrassment for the drug companies, who will be meeting the South African Governmentâ€™s legal costs. According to CNN, three of the largest companies had withdrawn from court action and persuaded the other forms to follow suit.
By the consent of all parties, I simply ask to notify (that) the application is withdrawn," Stephanus Cilliers, lawyers for the drug companies, told a packed Pretoria Supreme Court on Thursday. After the judge accepted the motion and announced the decision, dozens of AIDS activists wearing "HIV positive" T shirts cheered and erupted into song.
Many of the activists paraded outside the court the previous day demanding a better deal for South Africaâ€™s 4.7million AIDS sufferers. Some demonstrators staged a mock trial, others displayed a banner with 250,000 signatures, roughly the number of people reported to have died from AIDS in South Africa this year.
Earlier in the week former president Nelson Mandela criticised the drug companies for their stance.
"I think the pharmaceuticalâ€™s are exploiting the situation that exists in countries like South Africa - in the developing world - because they charge exorbitant prices which are beyond the capacity of the ordinary HIV/AIDS person. This is completely wrong and must be condemned".
But the pharmacetical companies say they have the welfare of AIDS suffers at heart. "This settlement meets the objectives of both the South African government and the pharmacetical industry - but it is my fervent hope that the real winners will be the patients," Jean-Pierre Garnier, chief executive GlaxoSmithKline said in a media release. GlaxoSmithKline is the worldâ€™s biggest manufacturer of AIDS drugs.
South Africa has more people living with HIV or AIDS than any other country in the world, with 4.7 million - one person in nine - infected with the virus. . About 2.4 million Africans died of AIDS last year, and in South Africa around 370 000 children under 15 were orphaned and half of them are not expected to reach their 16th birthday.
Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang said the government didnâ€™t agree to any deals in exchange for dropping the suit "You can trust the government," she told reporters.
The case, which was delayed for six weeks, was brought by 39 drug companies who argued that a 1997 law regulating medicine was too broad and unfairly targeted drug manufacturers. This legislation was suspended during the trial pending the outcome. Every hour a well-paid lawyer argued the finer points of patent law, 280 Africans died of AIDS.
Oxfam senior policy adviser Kevin Watkins told BBC News it was a "comprehensive climbdown" by the drug companies.
"We have lost three years in the fight against AIDS, but it is a great victory for the people in South Africa and for the global campaign to make drugs more affordable."
The Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, former Primer Minister Mike Moore welcomed the news â€˜Itâ€™s a win-win situation for all concerned," he said in a statement yesterday. This settlement shows that the WTOâ€™s Agreements contain the necessary flexibility to meed the health needs of developing countries and can be used as a basis for resolving difficult issues containing access to essential drugs.
The court case had drawn world-wide attention and protests that the pharmaceutical companies were more concerned profits than human lives. The court rejected the pharmeceticalsâ€™ argument that generic drugs would reduce their revenue and jeopardise research projects.
Earlier these companies had criticised the South African Government for rejecting their offers of cheaper medicine, and the ball is now firmly back in the court of the South African government to provide the antiretroviral treatment, including treatment for the one in four pregnant mothers who are HIV positive. Campaigners who supported the South African government will now expect treatment to be delivered in order that HIV/AIDS can be suppressed.
More than 25m of the 36m people infected with AIDS live in sub- Saharan Africa - 8 million of them orphans. More than 470,000 children die of AIDS here every year with most of them contracting the disease from their mother or at birth.