AIDS DRUGS: Activists March on White House
In conjunction with worldwide protests aimed at the World Trade Organization's meeting this week in Seattle, WA, AIDS activists from ACT UP Philadelphia marched through the streets of Washington, D.C. yesterday to protest the Clinton administration's foreign trade policy that restricts compulsory licensing and parallel importing of AIDS drugs for developing countries. At the meeting, President Clinton and U.S Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky are expected to oppose exempting "essential medications" from patent protections. Amidst chants of "pills cost pennies; greed costs lives," and "medication for every nation," protesters marched four blocks through the city ending in front of the White House. The march passed Bristol-Myers Squibb's District offices where protesters paused for several minutes to denounce the drug manufacturer's opposition to Thailand's efforts to develop a generic version of the company's AIDS drug ddI. In accordance with WTO intellectual property agreements, Thailand is allowed to produce generic versions of the drug. However, the U.S. government, at the behest of Bristol-Myers, has threatened the country with trade sanctions if it continues to manufacture the less costly version of the medication. Protesters hoisted the "Golden Funeral Urn" they awarded to the president symbolizing the millions of deaths they attributed to a trade policy they characterized as "corporate welfare for drug companies." Ten activists were arrested in front of the White House after attempting to chain themselves to the fence. The protest ended with a choir singing "Amazing Grace." The rally marked the release of the international health GAP Coalition's "white paper" that documented several instances in which the Clinton administration placed "drug company concerns ahead of public health" in international trade agreements and WTO negotiations. In a statement released Monday, ACT UP Philadelphia's Paul Davis said, "International human rights laws indicate that access to HIV and AIDS treatments is a human right. This administration's policies ignore human rights and prioritize profits over lives." He added, "On World AIDS Day at the end of the millennium, President Clinton has the blood of millions on his hands."
Dr. Larry Egbert of Doctors Without Borders spoke to the demonstrators about Thailand's current struggle with Bristol-Myers over ddI. Noting that the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization is angry at the government's backing of Bristol-Myers' opposition, Egbert said that Doctors Without Borders is embarking on a campaign to heighten awareness of the situation. "We are letting people know that the U.S. is telling Thailand that they can't do this," he said. Calling the U.S. pressure "shocking," ACT UP's Chris Kimmenez said that the rally was part of an extensive campaign to address the issue. "Everyone should have access to medications to allow them to live," he said. Pharmaceutical companies, including Bristol-Myers, contend that compulsory licensing would reduce the amount of money necessary to research and develop new, enhanced medications. However, activists point to the enormous sums of money pharmaceutical companies spend on marketing their products. According to the company's annual report, Bristol-Myers spent more than $67 billion on marketing in 1998, compared to $16 billion on research and development. Lead protester and ACT UP member Asia Russell decried Clinton's "shameful" policy that protects the "power of the pharmaceutical industry ... before the lives of poor and suffering people with HIV." Accusing the government of inflicting "genocidal" policies, Russell said, "Charlene Barshefsky thinks that's okay. Bill Clinton thinks that's okay. We know it's wrong." Speaking to the crowd gathered in front of the White House, Hassan Gibbs, an ACT UP member and long-time HIV survivor, said that while Americans with HIV have access to critical treatment, the poor nations of the world are clamoring for similar access. Noting that the U.S. government "continues to play puppet to the pharmaceutical companies," Gibbs expressed "outrage at the sheer corruption that millions of people with HIV in developing nations are having essential medication held back from them." He demanded that Clinton put an end to "deliberate roadblocks to life saving medications" and called for compulsory licensing that would allow developing countries to manufacture their own, less-costly version of HIV treatments (Melissa Keefe, Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report).