President Bush on Wednesday named former Eli Lilly chairman and CEO Randall Tobias to head a new State Department office that will coordinate the recently approved $15 billion, five-year international AIDS initiative, The Washington Post reports. As global AIDS czar Tobias will coordinate the distribution of U.S. funds to nongovernmental organizations and transfer grant money between U.S. and foreign government agencies. The position carries the rank of ambassador and falls under the direct supervision of Secretary of State Colin Powell. Senate confirmation of Tobias's appointment could take up to two months.
Administration officials said Tobias's business record and experience with drug treatment programs while serving at Eli Lilly make him uniquely qualified for the newly created position, but many AIDS activists and advocates are less enthusiastic about his appointment. Paul Zeitz, executive director of the Global AIDS Alliance, praised Tobias's business experience but questioned whether he has adequate knowledge about either AIDS or Africa, the Indianapolis Star reports. He also suggested that some members of Congress may object to his ties to a pharmaceutical company. "We're seriously concerned that there is a potential conflict of interest here," Zeitz told the Star. "Is he going to give up his stock? How are we going to ensure he's not looking out for his buddies in the pharmaceutical industry?"
Eli Lilly is also a top Republican Party donor, say concerned activists at the Health Global Access Project, an organization of U.S. AIDS, health, and human rights activists. The company contributed more than $1.5 million to Republican campaigns during the 2002 election cycle and spent $234,000 in mailings to shareholders on behalf of Bush's campaign in 2000. Health GAP officials also worry that because of his ties to the pharmaceutical industry, Tobias will give preference to overseas programs that buy higher-priced, patented versions of anti-HIV medications instead of cheaper generic drugs. "Purchase of lowest-cost medicines, including generics, is a must," said Asia Russell of Health GAP in a press release. "The pharmaceutical industry calls that piracy. The heads of state of every other nation in the world have agreed at the World Trade Organization that public health and access to medicines for all takes precedence over drug company monopolies. Which side will Tobias be on?"