TCS Daily

Resistance Isn't Futile

By Abner Mason - November 6, 2003 12:00 AM

Given the global proportion of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the attention brought to this growing calamity by the president's $15 billion commitment to tackle the disease in Africa, one would think drug firms are pumping more money into finding a cure. But in an incredible twist, one that certainly could have been avoided, it turns out the opposite is true.


The reason is simple. The increasingly hostile, anti-capitalist environment confronting the pharmaceutical industry has made research and development for HIV/ AIDS drugs a high-risk venture. Violent protesters, made famous in Seattle a few years ago, don't hit the streets for cheaper Viagra.


Post-Seattle, the pharmaceutical industry has seen the outcry against its so-called "massive profits" increase to a feverish pitch. The industry is under tremendous pressure to lower prices in developing countries. Congress is eager to import Canadian price controls. And the industry itself has already made significant concessions on its intellectual property rights.


The assault on the industry -- whether it comes from vote-seeking governors clamoring for cheap Canadian drugs or from non- governmental organizations like Oxfam -- is well under way. Perhaps more than the virus itself, this assault represents the biggest threat to public health in poor countries and HIV patients worldwide.


And it comes at the worst possible time. Resistance to the drug cocktails is building. Last week, the BBC reported a study showing that hundreds are resistant to all HIV drugs as the virus mutates.


"Officials said the figures highlight the need for new anti-HIV drugs," the report said.


Ironically, the news appeared on the same day GlaxoSmithKline announced it was again reducing its not-for-profit price of HIV/ AIDS medicines by up to 47 percent.


Amid slashing its prices, price controls in major markets such as Canada and chronic violations of property rights, why would the industry continue to spend millions on HIV/AIDS research? It won't.


AIDS activists and American lawmakers should be concerned about erosion of the investment climate for America's drug industry. We should be doing everything possible to protect a health care system the world expects to dream up the second generation of life-saving HIV/AIDS medicines.


Lawmakers may not be able to turn back the clock on the damage already done but they should be wary of the most recent threat to industry research dollars -- Canada.


Importing drugs from Canada that are cheaper due to government price caps is all the rage among American politicians. Canada's health care regime indeed saves money but it does not save lives. It offers neither America, nor HIV/ AIDS patients around the world, much of a model for quality care, much less hope for a cure.


Common HIV/AIDS treatments aren't even available in Canada. Approval times for AIDS drugs in Canada's rationed health care system take nearly four times longer than what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration needs to OK new medication.


Avoiding a medical death sentence with pills is not cheap. Putting a cure ahead of politics is as vital as keeping intact the free market structure that rewards U.S. drug firms for their ingenuity. After all, the Mercks of the world do not have to spend money on HIV/ AIDS research - they choose to. Unfortunately, money-losing ventures in America rarely last long.


Abner Mason is executive director of the AIDS Responsibility Project and chairman of the International Committee for the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. A version of this article appeared in the Boston Herald.


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