Living In Strange Times: The AIDS Epidemic And WTO — Welcome Address to FMRAI Conference

We live in strange times indeed. If we look at the reporting on public health, even in India, we will conclude that the Mad Cow disease or BSE is the most serious public health menace in the world. Five billion dollars is being spent this year by the Europeans to control BSE, which has claimed 80 lives. 17 million Africans have already died of AIDs. This has left the world unmoved.  And they will continue to die as the treatment for AIDs with the patented drugs of the pharmaceutical MNCs cost $10,000 per year. For countries such as India or African countries where the health expenditure per head is less than $10 and a per capita income is less than $500, drugs at this price is a death sentence.

The United States and other rich countries imposed this recurring death sentence on the third world population when they imposed their vision of Intellectual Property Rights on the world in the GATT/WTO negotiations. We had a number of apologists also in India, arguing that the poor would easily survive on generic drugs with the newer patented drugs being necessary only for the rich. Arguments that new diseases will need newer drugs were completely ignored. If we want to look at what is in the offing for India after the WTO patent regime comes into practice in 2005, we need to look at what is happening in Africa now.

The implication for those suffering from diseases such as AIDs in Africa is that between life and death. Life saving drugs are available, but at prices that neither the people nor the Governments can afford. A year’s treatment with patented AIDS drugs costs $ 10,000, as against the actual cost of production, which is probably less than 1/50th — $200. CIPLA has recently agreed to furnish these at $350 to the Doctors Without Frontiers. For countries such as Zimbabwe, Zambia etc., the cost of anti-Aids drugs, along with drugs for other opportunistic infections, is many times the GDP of these countries. However, any attempt to either manufacture them locally or import such drugs from countries that manufacture them cheaply has been opposed fiercely by the United States and other rich nations. This is the monstrous world we live in. Commercial rights are much more important than the right to life. This is particularly true if the commercial right belongs to the multi-nationals and the living are in the third world.

As so often happens in history, regimes and systems that appear to be unjust rarely last. Rousseau’s social contract operates – whether it is a tyrannical autocracy or an unjust global regime involving life saving drugs – if it is seen to be unjust, it is unlikely to survive for long.

Different kinds of protests are slowly emerging in the world. Some are clearly recognizable as protests – the protests in Seattle or the more recent ones in Warsaw  – against WTO and the IMF. Countries faced with letting their AIDS affected population die without treatment are starting to protest. Brazil has recently threatened production of two AIDs drugs if the import prices do not drop. It already produces 8 oof the 12 patented drugs for which the United States has already hauled Brazil to the WTO dispute settlement body. The African countries are trying to see how they can meet their drug needs for not only anti-AIDs drugs, but also drugs for malaria, sleeping sickness, elephantiasis, etc. In all these cases, the money to be made from these drugs in poor third world countries is miniscule. However, the havoc that the patent regime is wreaking in the poorer countries of the world is enormous.

As we enter the 21st century, it is paradoxical how much potential there is of changing the way we live and how little of it can be availed. We have to let millions of AIDS victims die, as they have no money to pay the costs of patents held by rapacious pharmaceutical giants. After the book of genome has been read, even genes are being patented. In case we disagree, we have to contend with a WTO regime that is all in favour of global MNCS. Even if we find legal loopholes within WTO, the US is there to protect its Enrons, its tobacco companies and its drug cartels with its gunboat diplomacy.

The FMRAI has a very important role to play today in the country. As the heartlessness of the present system becomes obvious, it will be more and more clear that the earlier Congress and now the BJP Governments have sold the interests of the country in successive negotiations. Even though the WTO regime accepts process patents till 2005, the system is being changed to conform to product patents even before the due date to satisfy the United States. The country looks up to the FMRAI, which has been the vanguard of the struggle of various sections against the Intellectual Property Right regime being introduced under WTO and to force the Government to fight this unconscionable TRIPS regime.

I am sure that your deliberations will offer other sections of the Indian people a vision of what needs to be done and you will help create a coalition that will defeat these merchants of death: the pharmaceutical MNCs.