Bill Clinton is across the world and across the media at the moment, from India to PNG, touting the benefits of generically produced drugs as a treatment for HIV. Great stuff. The antiretrovirals that form the basis of HIV treatment are the building blocks of a worldwide assault on HIV/AIDS. The branded medicines that come from the US and Europe are priced far beyond the range of individual third world people and even their governments.

The no-name, easily reproduced drugs originating from India or Brazil are really the saviour of the third world. There are problems with local corruption and local distribution, but the key to saving the third world from a catastrophe is easily available drugs.

Shame then, that Clinton didn’t do something about it while he had the chance. As President, he, and especially Vice-President Al Gore, were keen on backing up the class action by Big Pharma against the South African government for producing generic drugs (much of the media attention focused, amazingly, on the quixotic initiatives of the south African government to deny the HIV-AIDS connection). 39 drug companies conspired to try and deny the global poor cheaply produced drugs, and it was only a global campaign that shamed them into abandoning the lawsuit.

Denying cheap drugs to the global poor – on the spurious basis of intellectual property – is the worst thing that’s been done to the global poor for a century. Generations to come will see our policy on AIDS drugs and obeisance to the mighty market as directly equivalent to Stalin or Mao, if not worse. You could throw many gulags into the pit we’ve built in the third world and not touch the sides, and no amount of PNG chieftain ceremonies is going to alter the fact.

Peter Fray

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