BANGKOK, Thailand – France accused the United States on Tuesday of pressuring developing countries to give up their right to make cheap generic HIV drugs in return for free-trade agreements — with President Jacques Chirac (search) calling the tactic "tantamount to blackmail."
A U.S. official dismissed the French allegation as "nonsense," while delegates to the International AIDS Conference (search) lamented figures showing only about 7 percent of the 6 million people in poor countries who need antiretroviral treatment are getting it.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) urged Washington to show the same leadership in fighting AIDS as it has in fighting terrorism.
"We hear a lot about weapons of mass destruction, we hear a lot about terrorism. And we are worried about weapons of mass destruction because of the potential to kill thousands. Here we have an epidemic that is killing millions. What is the response?" Annan said in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. in Bangkok.
"We really do need a leadership. America has a natural leadership capacity because of its resources, because of its size," Annan said.
Since the last AIDS conference in Barcelona in 2002, the number of people being treated for the disease has doubled in the developing world to 440,000. At the same time, 6 million people died from the virus and 10 million people became infected, World Health Organization (search) figures show.
"By these measures of human life, the ones that really matter, we have failed. And we have failed miserably to do enough in the precious time that has passed since Barcelona," said Jim Kim, WHO's AIDS director.
Cost is a key issue. European and U.S. pharmaceutical giants make most of the 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 of AIDS drugs in recent years, and have given some away 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 only approved 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.
India — along with Thailand and Brazil — is among developing countries making cheap generic drugs, and on Tuesday, the WHO approved four new Indian-made medicines. Still, not enough affordable drugs are being produced: An estimated 38 million people are infected with HIV, mostly in poor countries: 25 million in sub-Saharan Africa and 7.2 million in Asia.
China, which had long denied having an AIDS problem, appealed for outside help in its fight against HIV. Wang Longde, Beijing's vice minister of health, told a session of the International AIDS Conference that his country lacks the resources to properly deal with its emerging epidemic.
China says it currently has 840,000 people infected with HIV — 80,000 of whom have full-blown AIDS. But the United Nations' AIDS agency has warned that China could see 10 million HIV cases by 2010 if it doesn't act quickly.
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."
"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?" Chirac said.
France's global ambassador on AIDS, Mireille Guigaz, 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.
About 100 AIDS activists, carrying mock body bags, interrupted a speech by the head of Pfizer, accusing multinational drug firms such of denying lifesaving medicine to HIV sufferers through inflated prices.
"Break the patents, treat the people," they shouted.
Pfizer CEO Hank McKinnell resumed after a few minutes, saying the protection of patents drives innovation by ensuring companies will earn profits on important inventions.
Without intellectual property rights, "you would have exactly the same number of drugs that has been discovered in the Soviet Union in the past 50 years, which I think is about one," he said.
Chirac also called on rich nations to raise donations to the 2 1/2-year-old U.N. Global Fund — aimed primarily at fighting AIDS — by $3 billion per year. Wealthy countries have committed only a fifth of the $3.5 billion the fund needs for next year, U.N. officials said.
A group of Africans interrupted the French minister delivering Chirac's message to demand more AIDS funding from developed countries.
"Shame! Shame!" they chanted.
At the heart of the AIDS debate is how to control the spread of the virus.
Many delegates dismissed President Bush's policy of abstinence as a setback in global efforts to control the pandemic.They say using condoms and giving clean syringes to drug users is the best way to prevent HIV.