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Americans Helping Americans

Cheney Pulls the Plug on Medicine for
World's Poorest Nations at Behest of Pharmaceutical Giants
(and Media Forgets to Report It)

Orion Magazine 20jan03

Vice-president, Dick Cheney, has personally interceded in behalf of the American pharmaceutical industry to block an international trade agreement that could have provided affordable, life-saving drugs to impoverished countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

According to The Guardian (U.K., 12/21/02 US Wrecks Cheap Drugs Deal), "following intense lobbying of the White House by America's pharmaceutical giants," the U.S. refused, at the very last minute, to relax global patent laws which keep American drugs for malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDS, pandemic in the Third World, beyond the reach of most developing countries.

Cheney Pulls the Plug on Medicine for World's Poorest Nations at Behest of Pharmaceutical Giants (and Media Forgets to Report It) Orion Magazine 20jan03

In attempting to verify the report, OrionOnline searched Google Newsand other search engines. We found, unsurprisingly, that the mainstream American media once again missed the scoop. Specific searches on The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and even National Public Radio found no evidence of the story. It was reported, however, by The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, and the Austin Chronicle, as well as being conveyed on Reuters News Service, and picked up by Forbes.com. A good many international news outlets did print the article -- from The Guardian to the Riyadh Daily in Saudi Arabia, and much in between.

The talks were held in December at the World Trade Organization's headquarters in Geneva, and collapsed just before Christmas as the United States, despite "furious opposition" from all other 140 members of the WTO, pulled out of an international agreement reached at the last WTO summit in November 2001 in Doha, Qatar (pronounced "gutter"). "The United States has announced it cannot join the consensus," said the Brazilian negotiator, Antonio de Aguilar Patriota.

Sources in Geneva said that the negotiating strategy had come straight from the White House, with Mr Cheney seizing the reins from America's chief trade negotiator, Robert Zoellick.

Earlier in the same day America's drug industry had expressed confidence that its lobbying of the Bush administration would pay off. "I don't have any indication that the US is changing its position on that at all," Shannon Herzfeld of PhRMA, the organization representing leading US pharmaceutical companies, told Inside US Trade, the specialist trade magazine.

Some representatives accused the White House of being in the pocket of big US drug corporations. "The joke in Geneva this morning is that they couldn't make a decision because the CEOs of Merck and Pfizer were still in bed," said Jamie Love, director of the Consumer Project on Technology, a US lobby group.

The US representatives have accused other WTO members, such as India and Brazil, that have drug manufacturing industries, of trying to expand the agreement so they can produce and export more profitable drugs like Viagra, according to a report in the Riyadh Daily.

"Good God Almighty," responded Jim Hightower, a columnist for the Austin Chronicle, (1/17/03, Not in Our Name) "Babies are dying, and these scurrilous scoundrels are wailing about the far-fetched possibility of pinching profits on Viagra sales! They can call it what they want, but it's baby killing." Harsh perhaps, but not entirely undeserved.

According to Rick Mercier of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, (1/12/03, Profits Take Precedence Over Lives), in Kenya alone 700 people die every day as a result of AIDS, and one million children have been orphaned by the disease. That number is expected to double in the next 7 years. Mercier was in Kenya on a World Affairs Journalism Fellowship.

"There are 6 million people who should be on antiretroviral medication in the developing world," said Hightower, "but only 300,000 are; and a third of those get it through the Brazil program that Washington opposed."

In 2001 the United States had filed a complaint with the WTO against Brazil, which had made the "outrageous decision" to offer free AIDS medication to its citizens, and was contemplating producing generic AIDS drugs for export to African nations devastated by the disease.

The pharmaceutical industry argues that it spends billions each year on research, and that the manufacture and distribution of generic drugs to the developing world would cause financial hardship for them. They claim this could cause research spending to "dry up." But under the agreement the WTO was working on, the cheaper drugs would only be made available in countries whose populations could never have afforded the patented American versions anyway. Therefore the industry would likely see no shrinking of its current market share or stock values.

Millions in developing nations with other even more treatable (or preventable) diseases also find themselves shut off from expensive treatments. According to Doctors Without Borders, there are more malaria deaths than there were 40 years ago, and cases of tuberculosis "are increasing at a rate that will leave 35 million people dead by the end of this decade." The abbrogation by the United States of the Doha agreement means that generic versions of treatments for these diseases also cannot be made available.

Lest this be viewed as a partisan issue, Rick Mercier is quick to point out that the Clinton administration pressured Thailand to restrict both the manufacture and import of generic drugs in the 90s. Thai doctors said those moves reduced the country's ability to fight AIDS, according to Mercier. "Then-vice-president Al Gore was dispatched to South Africa twice -- in 1998 and again in early 1999 -- to pressure the South African government to rethink a law it passed in 1997 to enable the import of cheap bulk drugs and compel domestic drug firms to produce generic versions of certain treatments." Several pharmaceutical firms had filed suit against the South African government in an effort to protect their profits.

European trade commissioner, Pascal Laramy, has proposed a compromise deal that would ask the World Health Organization to make a determination as to at what point a country is facing a "public health crisis," requiring it to override drug patents. America's trade negotiator Robert Zoellick politely called the proposal a "constructive contribution," but stopped short of endorsing the idea.

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