TCS Daily

Sec. Thompson: "What's the Incentive...?"

By Duane D. Freese - February 9, 2004 12:00 AM

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson gave a spirited defense on Thursday to the Bush administration's approach to funding international AIDS programs and its protections of intellectual property.

Thompson's remarks came at the conclusion of a forum on the Global Pandemic of AIDS in Africa, Russia and China, moderated by Tech Central Station host James Glassman at the American Enterprise Institute.

Thompson rejected the notion that the United States should put more of its money into the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, a partnership he heads, rather than the president's initiative of bilateral AIDS aid to 12 African and two Caribbean nations where HIV incidence is highest.

Dr. Paul Zeitz, director of the Global AIDS Alliance, on Feb. 2 had attacked the Bush 2005 budget for under funding the Global Fund. But Thompson said the need was to get other countries involved. "I don't think the United States can win the war by itself," he argued, adding Germany, France, other European nations and Japan needed to contribute more.

At the same time, he said the bilateral AIDS program, to which Bush has pledged $15 billion over five years, provides both some competition and collaboration from which other AIDS programs can learn.

"The AIDS problem is way too large to have only one strategy," Thompson said.

One strategy, though, that Thompson said wouldn't work would be to break the patents of pharmaceutical companies.

Asked by an Associated Press reporter for Latin America what the Bush administration position was on Latin American countries trying to break down the formulas of AIDS drugs so as to produce them generically themselves, Thompson responded, "The U.S. is very clear on this. We're going to defend intellectual property rights.

"If you don't defend intellectual property rights, you aren't going to have any new AIDS drugs."

Thompson added that a second step of the administration policy is to go to the pharmaceutical industry itself and tell them that they need to make the drugs available at the lowest price possible.

Further, the Global Fund uses its purchasing power to help get anti-AIDS drugs at low prices. And, he said, the pharmaceutical industry has responded, giving away AIDS drugs in many poor countries.

As a result of this and of drug innovation, the cost of treating AIDS has dropped dramatically, from $20,000 a person per year to "$350 to $400, which we can manage," Thompson said.

"But I don't want to stifle the innovation of pharmaceutical companies to come up with new drugs and new therapies," he said. "And that's what I'm fearful of by everyone pointing their fingers at the pharmaceutical companies saying, 'You're wrong; you have to give your drugs away.' What's the incentive for them to come up with any new research and new drugs in the future."

The forum also included AEI scholars Roger Bate and Nicholas Eberstadt, David Gordon of the Central Intelligence Agency, Marwyn Samuels of the U.S. China-AIDS Foundation and Jeffrey Sturchio of the pharmaceutical giant Merck. In a speech kicking off the forum, Randall L. Tobias of the U.S. Department of State who is the coordinator of the administration's AIDS program globally, painted a stark picture of the current situation: 3 million AIDS deaths in 2003; 5 million newly infected HIV carriers, bringing to more than 40 million the number of people infected.

"Do the math, folks. We are losing the war," he said.

But Tobias' address was far from hopeless. He noted that while AIDS had "deepened poverty, diverted resources" and "threatened the basic principle of development -- that the next generation would be better off than the last one," the world seemed to be waking up to seek new approaches to combating the pandemic circling the globe.

But what it also needs to do is match the U.S. commitment to fighting this scourge, for as of now the U.S. commitment under the Bush administration matches, and this year will exceed, all the contributions by all the other governments of the world combined, Tobias noted.

"So, we need more help from the rest of the world," he said. "Nonetheless, the world is rallying, and the national leaders of the most afflicted nations of the world are admitting that they do in fact have an HIV problem in their countries and will, in fact, devote more resources to fighting it."

That is far from enough, he said. And panelists looked at still other problems, including the corruption of the governments in Africa; a lack of openness by the Chinese government; a lack of concern by the Russian government; and the role played by poverty generally.


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