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Brazil fights for accessible anti-AIDS drug

Published Jul 2, 2005 9:33 AM

Since early June, the government of Brazil has been focusing on the task of securing the supply of antiviral medication to its HIV-infected population. On June 1, a commission from the Brazilian House of Representatives approved a bill that prohibits the patenting of vital drugs for the prevention and treatment of the disease. This makes it possible for state pharmaceutical laboratories to manufacture as generic otherwise expensive anti-HIV drugs.

Roberto Gouveia from the ruling Workers Party (PT), author of the bill, said that “it aims to promote well-being and to advance a humanizing model; we cannot remain subject to profits.”

Brazil is encouraging other countries to take advantage of World Trade Organization rules and not be beholden to voracious pharmaceutical companies that, with their extraordinarily high prices, put people’s health and well-being at risk. The WTO agreements on intellectual property allow governments to produce a generic version of a high-priced patented medicine if an agreement cannot be reached with the patent company and there is a health threat.

Most recently, Brazil alarmed greedy U.S. pharmaceutical Abbott Laboratories when it announced June 24 that it would break the patent for Abbott’s drug combination of Lopinavir and Ritonavir, named Kaletra, unless Abbott lowers its high price or allows Brazil to manufacture a generic version.

The Associated Press reported June 24, “Health Minister Humberto Costa said Brazil is able to act on its own because it has legislation that allows the government to break drug patents in cases of a health emergency or if it rules the pharmaceutical industry is engaged in abusive pricing.”

Abbot and some reactionary voices in the United States have responded that Brazil does not have an AIDS emergency. That’s a typical answer from a callous for-profit medicine manufacturing company. But it is Brazil’s aggressive prevention programs that have kept AIDS from being an epidemic for millions of Brazilians.

Brazil is recognized internationally as a leader in AIDS prevention and treatment programs that are available absolutely free to anyone who needs them. Brazil has been criticized by the religious right wing, particularly in the United States, for its no-nonsense, non-discriminatory policy.

In May, Brazil publicly criticized the Bush administration’s anti-abortion and pro-abstinence AIDS program and rejected $40 million in aid for anti-HIV programs. Brazil refused to sign on to a declaration condemning prostitution. Officials said that would have interfered with helping sex workers to protect themselves and their clients from infection.

Organizations provide free condoms and carry out an extensive prevention program, including treatment and care of orphan children.

The Brazilian anti-HIV program has been an example that many other developing nations are following. It has been praised by many organizations worldwide, including the World Health Organization and the Gates Foundation.

In 2003, the WHO announced that it would use the Brazilian program as a model to treat poor people infected with the virus. That same year, Bill Gates’ foundation awarded $1 million, stating: “Brazil has shown that with perseverance, creativity and compassion, a country whose people are affected with the AIDS virus can fight against the epidemic. Brazil is saving lives and saving resources at the same time; this should be an inspiration for the world.”

But the high cost of newer essential drugs is jeopardizing the program. Health authorities say Brazil is now treating 170,000 patients with HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases. However, an increase to 215,000 patients is expected by 2008.

A great many will be people over 50 years old, mostly women, who are now the fastest-growing sector of the population contracting the virus. In the last 10 years the number of cases of women over 50 grew 567 percent.

Abbott Co. officials have 10 days to respond to Brazil. If they do not lower the price or permit the production of a generic equivalent, Costa said that Brazil is ready to take action, and “will be issuing the compulsory license order.” He added, “Brazil will follow through and break the patent.”

The country is in similar negotiations with two other anti-HIV-drug manufacturers, Merck & Co. Inc. and Gilead Sciences Inc.