Letter to Al Gore: End Pressure on South Africa

Dear Vice President Gore,
We are writing to express opposition to trade pressures you are bringing against the people of South Africa over their struggle to obtain access to essential medicines.
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August 1, 1999

Dear Vice President Gore,

We are writing to express opposition to trade pressures you are bringing against the people of South Africa over their struggle to obtain access to essential medicines.

The White House dispute with South Africa concerns three basic points.

1. The South Africa government has indicated it wants to use compulsory licensing of medical patents to produce cheaper copies of HIV drugs and other essential medicines. This is of course legal under the WTO/TRIPS agreement, subject to Article 31 safeguards.
2. The South Africa government wants to authorize “parallel imports” of pharmaceuticals, so that it can buy drugs in the United States, Europe or elsewhere, in order to get the best world price. As you know, parallel importing of pharmaceuticals is legal under Article 6 of the WTO/TRIPS agreement, and is a common practice in Europe.
3. The South African government has approved generic versions of Taxol, a US government invention for treating cancer.

As co-chairman of the US/South Africa Binational Commission (BNC) you have authorized a wide range of trade pressures against South Africa, much of which is documented in a February 5, 1999 report to the Congress by the US Department of State. Despite increasing criticism of the US bilateral pressures on South Africa, here and internationally, your office has authorized new trade pressures against South Africa on April 30, 1999. http://www.cptech.org/ip/health/sa/sa301-ap99.html”

The USTR April 30, 1999 announcement of a Special 301 out-of-cycle review of trade pressures against South Africa ignored every shred of information that has been provided to your office by public health groups. Indeed, this most recent announcement is basically a recycled version of the February 16, 1999 submissions by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufactures Association (PhRMA), the trade association that represents giant drug companies like Bristol-Myers Squibb, Glaxo, Pfizer, and Johnson and Johnson that are trying to stop South Africa from implementing policies to cut costs for pharmaceuticals in South Africa.

It is shocking that the US government is adopting such an aggressive trade policy on behalf of US pharmaceutical companies, when all of sub-Saharan Africa is confronted with a public health crisis of historical dimensions. The US Surgeon General, Dr. David Satcher, recently wrote in the Journal of the America Medical Association that “HIV/AIDS can be likened to the plague that decimated the population of Europe in the 14th century.” Dr. Satcher says that “in many southern African countries, HIV/AIDS has become an unprecedented emergency, with 20% to 26% of people between the ages of 15 and 49 infected.” This is a here-and-now emergency. It is not a hypothetical or potential emergency. These people will die without access to pharmaceutical drugs.

Your response to this emergency should be to find ways to save lives. But look what you are doing.

-You are aggressively seeking the repeal of legislation in South Africa that would permit that country to do what nations in Europe do, use parallel imports to buy drugs at the best world price. South Africa wants to use market forces to cut drug costs. You are pushing to protect pharmaceutical companies from global competition, thereby forcing the South Africa people to pay premiums to buy drugs.

-You are punishing South Africa for even speaking out in favor of compulsory licensing of HIV/AIDS and other essential medicines. The April 30, 1999 report on South Africa complains that:

During the past year, South African representatives have led a faction of nations in the World Health Organization (WHO) in calling for a reduction in the level of protection provided for pharmaceuticals in TRIPS.

In fact, everything South Africa is seeking to do is legal under the WTO/TRIPS agreement, so this and countless other statements by US government officials are bald lies. But regardless, the exercise of free speech in international forums is an astonishing basis for trade sanctions. As an elected official, indeed, as a human, how would you act if 20 percent of all sexually active young people in the United States were infected with a fatal disease, and a foreign country was trying to prevent you from purchasing drugs on the global market to save money, and was preventing you from licensing firms to manufacture life saving medicines? Would you simply show up at the World Health Assembly and docilely applaud the actions of that country? Even if that foreign country was engaged in a relentless public relations campaign to label every legal action as a form of piracy or lawlessness? At what point would you have the guts to tell the world the truth, and to speak out on behalf of millions of infected young men and women?

-You are punishing South Africa for giving approval to generic versions of Taxol, a cancer drug that was invented by the US government. There are aspects of the US government complaint about Taxol that are absurd, on technical grounds, such as the insistence that South Africa extend longer periods of data exclusivity than are required in the United States. But the larger issue is more basic. Why on earth should Vice President Al Gore or any other US government employee seek to prevent global competition for Taxol, a life saving cancer drug that was invented and developed by the US National Institutes of Health? Taxol was in NIH sponsored Phase III trials before the Bush Administration gave BMS exclusive rights to use NIH research for drug approvals. What is the moral basis for extending the BMS monopoly on Taxol in a country that is so poor?

As the Vice President of the United States you are in a position to do much good or much harm in the world. US voters will soon be asked to determine if you should be the next President of the United States. Please explain why they should choose you.

Sincerely,

James Love
Director
Consumer Project on Technology
Washington, DC

Dr. Bernard Pécoul
Project Director
Access to Essential Drugs
Médecins Sans Frontières
Geneva, Switerland

Joelle Tanguy
Executive Director
Doctors Without
Borders/Medecins Sans
Frontieres USA

Eric Sawyer
Executive Director
HIV/AIDS Human Rights Project
NY, NY

Kim Nichols
Development Director
African Services Committee,
Inc.

Bas van der Heide
Director
Health Action International
Europe

Beryl Leach
Africa Program Coordinator
Health Action International

Lori Wallach
Director
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Associate Professor,
Department of International
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