BEHIND THE HEADLINES: South Africa HIV/Aids groups press the point

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.

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