Moralized Discourses: South Africa’s Intellectual Property Fight for Access to AIDS Drugs for Access to AIDS Drugs

By Debora Halbert
Nov. 2002


In 1997, the South African government passed the South AfricanMedicines and Related Substances Control Act Amendments in order toaddress the problems associated with delivering AIDS medication to themillions of South Africans with HIV/AIDS. The scope of the act wasmodest, allowing the Minister of Health to make affordable medication avail-able to protect public health.1 However, the act was immediately interpretedas a threat to the patents of international pharmaceutical companies that pro-vide AIDS medication on the international market. These companiesresponded by filing a lawsuit against the South African government, whichsparked worldwide debate. The fight spawned a public relations campaignon the part of the world’s most powerful corporations, which led to aconcerted effort by the U.S. government to halt South Africa’s attempt toprovide AIDS medication to its citizens.

Despite resistance on the part of major pharmaceutical companies and theU.S. government, the issue of AIDS in South Africa will not be ignored.AIDS infection rates in Africa and the death tolls caused by this disease aremind numbing in scope. According to UNAIDS, approximately 28.5 mil-lion people in sub-Saharan Africa have HIV.2 Of these millions of people,less than 25,000 are receiving antiretroviral treatment.3 It is estimated that4.7 million people in South Africa alone have AIDS4 and almost 20% ofadults in South Africa have HIV.5 Some communities have infection rates ashigh as 70%,6 and according to James Love, the Director of the ConsumerProject on Technology, 20,000 people die each month in South Africa fromAIDS.7 The number of children with AIDS is heartbreaking, with estimates of at least 95,000 children in South Africa infected.8 While many childrenhave the disease, even more have been left orphaned because of AIDS andthe number of orphans is threatening to overwhelm communities

Africa generally, and South Africa specifically, are facing a crisis ofalmost unimaginable proportions. African nations are experiencing short-ages in teachers and health care staff as the virus takes its toll.9 The diseasehas hit all sectors of society, but women and the poor are the most likely tobe affected.10 It is not an exaggeration to claim that entire nations are at riskof extinction if the problem is not systematically addressed.11 The problemhas been ignored for too long, and the social costs have reached crisis levels.Additionally, because risk of infection has been on the decline in the U.S.,the perceived urgency of the problem for U .S. lawmakers has been reduced.12As a result, it has become easier for the developed world to ignore theproblem. Thus, when the South African Medicines Act was introduced itquickly resulted in battle lines being drawn between patent rights and publichealth. While all parties acknowledged the scope of the AIDS crisis, how togo about solving the problem became the subject of significant moral andlegal debate

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