Fight highlights worldwide struggle with social agendas, antiretroviral drugs and patents
It will probably never end. Once again, world attention is focused on Brazil and the United States and their differences on how to fight AIDS.
Earlier this month, Brazil refused $40 million in U.S. funding for AIDS, asserting that it would not bend to guidelines shaped by religious conservatives.
The Bush administration’s program to combat AIDS is seen by many countries as extremely conservative and, worse yet, ineffective. The program promotes sexual abstinence and, with support from the U.S. religious right, supports the use of condoms only as a last resort.
Brazil’s fight with AIDS includes providing help to sex workers, but U.S. officials demanded that, in order to receive financial support, Brazil must condemn prostitution.
The Brazilian government and many AIDS organizations believe that ignoring sex workers would damage efforts to protect them and their clients from infection.
The demand from the Bush administration has become known as the “global gag,” a ban on U.S. government funds to AIDS organizations worldwide that do not condemn abortion and or other morality issues.
Pedro Chequer, the director of Brazil’s HIV/AIDS agenda in the government, told the press that Brazil has been resisting U.S. pressure for years. “They want us to promote abstinence and fidelity rather than condoms and have always had problems about the clause on prostitution,” he said.
Anti-AIDS campaigners around the world congratulated Brazil about going public with the rejection of the funds, even if it means the end of financial support from the United States. Chequer has stated to the press that AIDS won’t be controlled and fought with “theological, narrow-minded and religious principles.”
In an interview with U.K. newspaper the Guardian, Randall Tobias, the global AIDS coordinator in the U.S. who allocates Bush administration anti-AIDS funds, said, “any organization receiving U.S. global AIDS funding will have to agree to the policy.”
Charity organizations as large as Care, Save the Children and World Vision would all fall into this category.
The Brazilian Program Against AIDS
Brazil’s agenda is quite objective and acclaimed all over the world. The Ministry of Health has its own guidelines that have been working very well for years. The government freely provides condoms to the public and gets the word out among sex workers. According to activists in Brazil, the rates of infection have been dropping on a yearly basis.
Brazil is also the only Latin American country that provides free anti-HIV and AIDS medications to people who need them, which almost pays for itself by reducing costs for hospitalization and drugs.
According to the Far-Manguinhos lab in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil imports the ingredients from Asia and produces 12 drugs that keep AIDS under control for 200,000 Brazilians.
Struggle Over Patents Started It All
It’s not the first time that Brazil and the United States are face to face over AIDS policies. In 1998, moved by the high cost of AIDS-fighting drugs, Brazil’s government decided to analyze trademarked drugs and produce its own generic antiretroviral drugs.
Brazil could afford to produce the drugs because it didn’t pay market prices; drugs produced locally are almost 80 percent cheaper to make. The move incurred the rage of pharmaceutical labs in the United States, which wanted to regain control of patents on generic medicines used to fight the disease and produced in Brazil.
American labs tried to stop Brazil’s production of the generic drugs because they are derived from formulas developed and patented in the United States.
Brazilian manufacturers didn’t pay royalties, pleading that the AIDS epidemic is not a matter of buying and selling or of commercial theft, but that it is a health crisis that should not be pushed aside for the sake of money. The locally made drugs are not sold; they’re given to HIV-positive people.
The United Nations itself approved Brazil’s decision and encouraged other countries to follow its example and begin manufacturing their own drugs based on patented formulas.
By that time, 52 of 53 nations voted to accept the notion of ignoring patents in favor of developing badly needed drugs. The move was opposed only by the United States.
Today, however, U.S. pressure seems to be partially working. Last week, Brazil’s government failed to keep its pledge to break the patents on expensive AIDS drugs. The global medical group Doctors Without Borders criticized the government for not keeping its promise, saying it resembled “a toothless tiger.”
In March 2005, Brazil said it would break the patents on four anti-AIDS drugs if producers didn’t agree to allow the local production of generic equivalents — or buy the drugs at discounted prices.
The drugs — Lopinavir and Ritonavir from Abbott, Efavirenz from Merck, and Tenofovir from Gilead Science — will cost Brazil $169 million, which stands as 67 percent of the entire government budget for imported AIDS drugs, according to the Health Minister Humberto Costa.
AIDS Drugs: U.S. vs. the World
May 31, 2001. By Paulo Rebêlo, on Wired News
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