While the 13th International AIDS Conference was taking place this July in Durban, South Africa, much of the buzz surrounded allegations that many Western pharmaceutical companies are overcharging for AIDS treatments.
While the 13th International AIDS Conference was taking place this
July in Durban, South Africa, much of the buzz surrounded allegations
that many Western pharmaceutical companies are overcharging for AIDS
While some US media criticized pharmaceutical companies for doing too
little, too late, company spokespeople took advantage of the visibility
on the conference by promoting the industry’s generosity.
According to research by CARMA International, the majority of reports
appeared to focus the blame on the cost of AIDS drugs. South African
High Court justice Edwin Cameron, who is HIV-positive, addressed the
conference: ’Amidst the poverty of Africa, I stand here before you
because I am able to purchase health. I am here because I can pay for
life itself’ (CNN, July 11). Conference organizer Dr. Hoosen Coorvadia
added, ’In the way we fought apartheid, we need now to tackle drug
prices’ (Newsday, July 11).
Spokespeople rallied to the support of their companies by promoting
efforts to donate drugs and money to help stem the crisis. Executives at
Merck discussed their work with the Gates Foundation to battle the
disease in Botswana. ’This is going to make a world of difference for
people living with HIV in Botswana,’ said Merck spokesman Jeffrey
Turchio (Los Angeles Times, July 11).
Most reports speculated that the donations were a result of public
pressure on the companies, not solely altruistic, and that the
conference itself was dramatically increasing that pressure. Abbott Labs
spokesman Rick Moser stressed that the important thing is that action is
taking place, and described the efforts as an industry initiative,
noting donations by Bristol-Myers Squibb from over a year ago: ’We are
responding to the calls for help and the public pressure, too. Yes, we
and others could have acted before, but clearly the time has come for us
to act. You really have to give the people at Bristol-Myers their due.
They opened the door, and we and others are now walking through it’ (The
Wall Street Journal, July 10).
Many journalists surmised that governmental inaction might be to blame
for the spread of AIDS, discussing South African president Mbeki’s
refusal to make AZT available to HIV-positive pregnant mothers.
Activists proclaimed that the main issue in Africa is lack of education
about the disease, not the cost of drugs. ’(Ugandan) President Museveni,
his attitude and action towards AIDS is one of the most important
factors that I think created the environment within my country in which
AIDS prevention activities took place,’ said Ugandan physician Dr. David
Sowata (National Public Radio, July 11).
While pharmaceutical companies were certainly criticized from many
angles in the media coverage surrounding the conference, the huge
breadth of issues covered at the conference shifted some of the focus
away from the drug companies. Also, company spokespeople were vocal in
their respective companies’ efforts to stop the spread of AIDS in
Africa, and were ready to respond to allegations that their charity was
misplaced. This appeared to help the industry as a whole maintain an
image of generosity at an event crowded with inaction and blame.
Evaluation and analysis by CARMA. Media Watch can be found at