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AIDS Crisis in L. America: Bush & Multinationals

AIDS Crisis in Latin America Compounded by Bush Administration’s Catering to U.S. Drug Multinationals, which Demonstrably are Far More Concerned with the “Bottom Line” than the Deaths of Tens of Thousands of AIDS Victims

Analysis prepared by COHA Research Associate Christine Crowley
Friday 10 March 2006

The following is an executive summary of the COHA Report: AIDS in Latin America . For the complete report, please click the link at the bottom of this page.

Faced with the looming threat of a merciless humanitarian crisis, Latin American governments must hack through an entangled web of patent laws, corporate loopholes, and misguided U.S. initiatives, before they can even begin to deliver life-saving drugs to a mounting number of AIDS victims in their countries. In the shadow of the more-publicized African crisis, the AIDS epidemic in Latin America has slowly infected the most vulnerable, poverty-stricken stratums of society, exacerbating the plight of an already economically handicapped region.

In 2005 alone, 1.8 million Latin Americans were newly infected by the disease, which claimed the lives of 200,000 victims that same year. In the Caribbean, where the AIDS epidemic ranks second only to that of Sub-Saharan Africa, AIDS claimed an estimated 24,000 victims in 2005, making the disease the leading cause of death among adults in the region, ages 15 to 44. As the relationship between AIDS and poverty is bidirectional, these alarming statistics attest to an ominous trend. Immediate action must be taken before the epidemic further devastates the fundamental fabric of Latin American societies.

As underdevelopment and debt tie the hands of Latin American governments, global neglect has further prevented a strong response to the region’s growing crisis. Meanwhile, through the White House’s good offices, pharmaceutical companies have been able to form de facto alliances within the World Trade Organization and the Food and Drug Administration with ease, while an aggressive public relations campaign is meant to drive home the thesis that pharmaceutical companies are being good world citizens by restraining obscenely high drug prices.

Confronted by an onslaught of increasing international pressure, some drug companies have taken piecemeal steps toward negotiating reduced prices with their leitmotif seemingly being let charity be more apparent than real. When reduced prices actually resulted from negotiations, the prices still often soared above those of generic competitors, and remained far out of reach for the average of 40% of Latin Americans living below the poverty line. In addition, in 2003, a year after the U.S. blocked a major 143-country agreement that would have allowed the world’s poorest countries to purchase discounted pharmaceuticals, the WTO added the ‘paragraph six’ waiver to the controversial Trade-Related Aspects of International Property Rights (TRIPS), which institutionalizes twenty-year patents on vital AIDS drugs. While the waiver was supposed to allow crisis-ridden countries that cannot manufacture drugs domestically, to import cheap alternatives, no country has yet been able to attain a license to import such reduced-price drugs due to the hopeless rigidity and complexity of the legislation. Such gnawing practical problems have led NGOs to call the arrangement “the present wrapped in red tape.”

Working for the Pharmaceutical Companies
As anticipated, CAFTA already is turning out to be a highly pliable mechanism for U.S. corporate interests, as demonstrated by the ever-increasing demands that the U.S. is imposing on Central American members in the ongoing trade bloc negotiations. U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman is attempting to push beyond the terms of previous intellectual property agreements to further extend the life of pharmaceutical patents, and it appears that he is succeeding. Guatemala, for example, has already agreed to repeal a law aimed at guaranteeing local access to crucial generic drugs, despite the social unrest that the issue has incited throughout the country.

In addition, while Bush’s highly-criticized President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) allocates approximately 50% of the plan’s budget to invest in antiretroviral drugs, it does so in the least effective manner. Under the leadership of Randall Tobias, former CEO and major stockholder of drug giant Eli Lilly, it should come as no surprise that Bush’s AIDS initiative purchases the majority of its drugs from high-priced pharmaceutical companies, instead of turning to significantly cheaper generic alternatives. The decision not to utilize generic drugs, which cost a fraction of the price, and could allow for much broader distribution, indicates a truly ill-conceived strategy, if the public good is meant to be the program’s top priority. Furthermore, the FDA has played a role in delaying the release of generic drugs that could be used for the initiative, by taking as long as eight months to approve drugs that potentially could have gained a positive nod within six weeks. PEPFAR also funds Bush-favored faith-based groups equipped with little or no health know how and espousing an often ill-suited abstinence and fidelity approach, thus siphoning financial resources from the urgently needed medical tactics in favor of a diamond-in-the-sky strategy. Adding salt to the wound, the White House has further compromised the ability of Latin American governments to cope with the AIDS crises by recently cutting overall development aid to the region by 28.5%, making 2007 the third consecutive year that significant aid was slashed and relocated to regions of greater “strategic” importance.

Despite growing concern over the issue, few changes have occurred on the AIDS drug scene, and Latin American nations basically have been left alone to navigate a tortuous system dominated by profit-motivated corporate influence and White House diktats. Furthermore, without a renewed international commitment to addressing the fundamental issues of human well-being and poverty, little hope remains for eradicating a disease that finds most of its victims among the ranks of the already suffering and deprived.

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