Originally created 07/06/99

Gore under fire in South Africa over high cost of HIV drugs

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- South African protesters took aim Monday at health policies backed by Al Gore, underscoring a trade dispute between the United States and South Africa over the cost of AIDS drugs.

About 300 demonstrators marched outside the U.S. Consulate with signs saying "Gore Greed Kills" and "Stop U.S. Bullying of Poor Countries."

The United States wants South Africa to amend a 1997 law that grants the government unspecified power to obtain cheaper, generic AIDS drugs for the country where more than 3 million people are HIV positive.

South Africa wants to import AIDS medicines from countries where they are sold more cheaply under patent agreements, or license production within South Africa.

About 40 pharmaceutical companies worldwide are challenging the law in South African courts, fearing it may be used in a way that violates patent rights.

"It seems the American government is simply acting as a mouthpiece for the large pharmaceutical corporations," said Morna Cornell, director of The AIDS Consortium. "They're scared (that) Americans who pay so much for their medicines will turn around and say, `Hey, it's cheaper over there."'

In a letter last month to the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Gore said he does not oppose South Africa's attempts to produce or obtain generic AIDS medicines as long as those efforts do not violate laws protecting patents.

Gore said he was trying to resolve the dispute with then-Vice President Thabo Mbeki, who is now South Africa's president. Mbeki and Gore co-chair a commission on U.S.-South African relations.

South African AIDS activists have also targeted their own government for refusing to provide free AZT for HIV-positive pregnant women, a treatment that costs $110 for a minimum four-week course. The medicine reduces the transmission risk to infants.

In April, rape victims demanded free preventive treatment with a combination of AZT and retroviral drugs, a cocktail available locally for $820 -- equivalent to about five months' wages, on average.

South Africa's former health minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, insisted the government could not afford such treatment unless drug companies lowered their costs.


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