Three years ago, 39 pharmaceutical firms successfully sought an
injunction preventing the South African government from waiving patent
laws in times of national emergency. The case reached the final court of
appeal in Johannesburg this week, at a time when one in ten South
Africans is either HIV-positive or infected with full-blown Aids.
It is a PR headache for any industry when it faces a conflict between
protecting its business interests and a humanitarian issue, particularly
so when popular opinion gravitates towards the afflicted.
The pharmaceutical industry believes the legislation 'will give the
Ministry of Health the ability to remove patents at whim'. Contrast that
with Oxfam senior policy adviser Sophia Tickell's line: 'Our angle is
not that patent protection is not important - it is. We just need to
find a level at which it can be maintained.'
With the major pharmaceutical players branded as villains, obscure
Indian manufacturer Cipla announced that it would mass produce patented
drugs at a fraction of the cost charged in the West, making them
available to the poorest countries.
The effect of this has been to undermine the industry's attempts to
convince the media that it is offering a good deal. As Tickell explains:
'Most firms have not made their reduced prices known, and for others the
prices are good but the generic manufacturers can offer more.'
Roche Pharmaceuticals spokesperson Horst Kramer sees PR as a secondary
consideration for the industry: 'In the last 18 months there have been
activities and charity events earmarked as PR efforts, and the firms
involved got bashed for wasting time and money. This is no time for PR
activities, but for real world action.'
The efforts of the pharmaceuticals, then, are focused on global schemes
(or 'meaningful projects', according to Horst) to achieve the
infrastructure required to counter the spread of HIV. GlaxoSmithKline
spokesperson Phil Thompson summed up its PR approach as 'responsibly
making announcements when we make progress in an area'.
The next phase for the pressure groups is unclear. A consumer boycott,
while possible against products like toothpastes, would not be practical
here. Instead pressure is likely to come from above. 'The way that the
debate is panning out - and with a groundswell of public opinion -
companies cannot expect to be left alone by governments and regulatory
bodies,' said Tickell.