France accused the United States on Tuesday of pressuring developing countries to give up their right to make cheap generic anti-HIV drugs in return for free trade agreements--with French president Jacques Chirac calling the tactic "tantamount to blackmail." A U.S. official dismissed the French allegation as "nonsense," while delegates to the International AIDS Conference in Bangkok, Thailand, lamented figures showing only about 7% of the 6 million people in poor countries who need antiretroviral treatment are getting it.
Cost is a key issue. European and U.S. pharmaceutical giants make most anti-HIV drugs, which are protected by patents and cost as much as $5,000 per person a year. Many major drug companies have dropped their prices for anti-HIV drugs in recent years and have distributed some free in Africa. The Bush administration's $15 billion AIDS funding package allows money to be spent on generic antiretroviral medicine in African countries and elsewhere only if it is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which so far has approved only branded versions of the drugs. However, the FDA said in May it would fast-track its reviews of any applications for generic drugs so that U.S. funds could be used to purchase the cheaper versions.
World Trade Organization rules give developing countries the flexibility to ignore foreign patents and produce copies of expensive drugs in times of health crises. All WTO members, including the United States, have signed an agreement to respect that clause. But there is nothing to prevent a country from imposing patent restrictions in a bilateral trade agreement, such as one Washington is negotiating with Thailand.
In a statement read out at the conference, Chirac said forcing certain countries "to drop these measures in the framework of bilateral trade negotiations would be tantamount to blackmail." He added, "We should implement the [WTO] generic drug agreement to consolidate price reductions. What is the point of starting treatment without any guarantee of having quality and affordable drugs in the long term?" Mireille Guigaz, the French global ambassador on AIDS, said Chirac was not trying to create tension with Washington. "The United States wants to put pressure on developing countries who try to stand up for their own industries," Guigaz said. "This is a problem."
A U.S. official who declined to be named called the French allegations "nonsense" and insisted the trade agreements will conform to WTO rules allowing poor countries to make generic drugs. "There really is no issue," he said. (AP)