TCS Daily

Secretary Thompson: "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished"

By Eric Bovim - December 1, 2003 12:00 AM

LIVINGSTONE, Zambia -- Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson has come to Africa to assess the needs for four of the countries in President Bush's emergency plan to address global HIV/AIDS. The President's hand selected "AIDS Czar," Randall Tobias, as well as the director general of the World Health Organization and two of the world's foremost research physicians, Anthony Fauci and Elias Zerhouni, are along for the ride.


The delegation comes at the right time. A new report due out this week from UNAIDS shows the virus is spreading at its fastest rate ever, afflicting 40 million people worldwide. The pandemic threatens to swallow entire societies in Africa where over 30 million people have the disease, leaving a rising tide of orphans as a legacy. China, India and Russia -- as Sec. Thompson and Dr. Fauci have already warned repeatedly on this trip -- are ticking time bombs of infection.


Meanwhile, activists, NGOs and their friends in the press are blaming these dire figures in part on high drug prices and patents. They continue to rehash cries to weaken the patent system.


For example, New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, began a November 22 column on Guatemalan AIDS with a striking claim: "you can just about see people dying as an indirect result of America's trade agenda." America's efforts to defend intellectual property rights, he intimates, are killing people.


Such America-bashing would be little more than typical liberal media blather if the stakes weren't so high. Some facts can help to round out the picture. 


For starters, the U.S. has become the de facto global health "superpower," researching and developing the majority of the world's new drugs. The amount of American philanthropy aimed at AIDS is unparalleled and the U.S. funds nearly 30% of the Global Fund's $4.8 billion budget. President Bush recently pledged $15 billion to fight HIV/AIDS over the next five years.


After meeting with the Cameroonian health minister, Secretary Thompson said in an interview here that he was asked for "help building infrastructure."


"Look, we can buy all the anti-retrovirals we wants and they are going to rot in port," Thompson said. "These drugs are as low as $400 per year now, so [prices] aren't standing in the way. What's standing in the way is getting someone in the bush tested and explaining to that person how to receive treatment."


The cost of HIV/AIDS medicines has dropped 95% in recent years and some industry leaders are now selling treatments at or below generic prices throughout the world. Indeed, Sec. Thompson's remarks echo some important recent evidence suggesting patents in Africa aren't hindering drug access.


Africa's appalling health care infrastructure, stigma and political cowardice are largely to blame for the current tragic state of HIV/AIDS in the developing world. And if the first few days of this trip are any indicator, those issues may become the fulcrum of the debate over how best to combat the disease. Dr. Lee Jong-Wook, the Director General of the WHO, argued in a speech this week, "The most important thing to do is to increase awareness of HIV and also to encourage people to know their HIV status. This will reduce the transmission of HIV from one person to another."


The key to winning the battle against AIDS will be to balance charity, which to a great degree is appropriate given the stakes, against the profit motive, which must exist if people expect drug companies to pour money into research for treatments and cures.


So does the bad press the U.S. sometimes receives irk Secretary Thompson? "It's extremely frustrating," he confessed. "It's like they say, 'No good deed goes unpunished.'" With luck -- and some attention to the facts -- that situation just might change.


Eric Bovim, a former international correspondent for Reuters, is a contributor to

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