East Africa set to take AIDS cue from South Africa

Nairobi- Kenya (PANA) -- If South Africans are celebrating the victory in the recent case in which 39 major pharmaceutical firms had challenged a law permitting the making or importation of cheaper AIDS drugs, drugs access lobby groups in Kenya are over the moon.
The Kenya Coalition of NGOs on Access to Medicines had, in collaboration with experts on AIDS and other medical and humanitarian bodies, mobilised over 6,000 Kenyans to sign a petition urging the drug firms to drop the case.
In a welcome turn of events, the firms withdrew the case and agreed to an out-of-court settlement and to meet the costs.
South Africa and other African countries worst hit by AIDS, Kenya included, want to be allowed to manufacture or import the cheaper retroviral drugs.
But the drug multinationals have resisted this bid, arguing that it infringes on their patent rights.
"The withdrawal of the case is a great victory for us," India van Gisbergen, the project lawyer at the Medicines sans Frontieres Nairobi office, told journalists.
"The case sets a precedent for the whole of Africa.
This means that countries can now move to enact legislation that widens AIDS drugs access for their people without the fear of being sued by the rich multinationals," he added.
The South African victory is likely to goad the other Third World countries currently drawing World Trade Organisation (WTO)- compliant laws into giving themselves the same leeway on the generic retrovirals.
This WTO category includes East Africa.
Tanzania and Uganda are expected to have passed the WTO-compliant law by 2006.
Kenya, which is more economically developed by WTO standards, is expected to do so by next December, having published a draft of the intellectual property rights bill last month.
In 1998, then South African president Nelson Mandela signed into law the contentious Medicines and Related Substances Control Amendment Bill of 1997, which recognises two trade mechanisms - compulsory licensing and parallel importing - the bone of contention by the 39 drugs firms.
The former allows a government to legalise the production of generic drugs by local manufacturers without necessarily obtaining the permission from the patent holders, while the latter enables a country's health authorities to import the drugs from the cheapest source despite the patent protections.
The crux of the matter is, however, that Africa's estimated 26 million HIV-infected people, over 4 million of them in East Africa cannot afford the lower drugs prices of 350-500 US dollars per person per year.
This means that, despite the celebration, there are still battles to be fought and won by the continent to stem the AIDS tide.

24 Abril 2001 20:51:00

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