A Murderous Conspiracy

The US government is trying to destroy South Africa’s AIDS prevention programme

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 5th August 1999.

South Africa is now the epicentre of the global AIDS quake. Twenty-two per cent of its pregnant women are HIV-positive. Within ten years, the country’s average life expectancy will drop from 59 to 40. The international community has been quick to respond to this catastrophe: the United States has threatened South Africa with sanctions for trying to prevent its citizens from catching the disease.

AIDS is, of course, incurable, though plenty can be done to delay its onset and treat its symptoms. But a number of drugs have been shown both to prevent transmission of the HIV virus from mother to baby and to reduce the chances of infection for women who take them after being raped. Unfortunately, they are formidably expensive, due in part to the prodigious profits extracted by the companies which own the patents.

In South Africa there is, understandably, sustained public pressure for the widespread deployment of these drugs, not least because the country has the highest incidence of rape in the world. The government is doing its best to respond. To buy courses of drugs for all South Africa’s vulnerable people from the companies which own the patents is simply impossible: the country’s public finances are already overstretched. Instead, the Government has passed a law enabling it to find cheaper means of saving tens of thousands of lives.

There is nothing radical or innovative about the legislation it has introduced. Indeed the same measures are used routinely by both the UK and US governments. The new law simply allows the department of health either to purchase, compulsorily, the rights to manufacture the drugs it needs, or to buy them from the country which produces them, under licence, most cheaply. But the measure offends 40 of the most powerful companies on earth.

The colossal profits enjoyed by the pharmaceutical firms which own the patents for AIDS drugs depend upon their total control of production and distribution. These companies might not have developed the drugs entirely by themselves (some emerged from publicly-funded work or were acquired through the purchase of smaller firms), but they guard their patents as jealously as an alchemist with a recipe for gold. While the South African law would allow them to continue to make money from the drugs they manufacture, by wresting exclusive control from them it would cut their profits back to levels which anyone else would consider reasonable. But nothing, even the lives of millions, can be permitted to threaten the value of their shares.

The companies launched a legal challenge and recruited their friends in the US Government to ensure that profit takes precedence over human life. Two weeks ago, the US Congress voted overwhelmingly to allow the State Department to continue waging its economic war against South Africa’s AIDS prevention programme.

Bill Clinton’s administration needs little encouragement. For the last two years, the State Department boasts, “all relevant agencies of the U.S. Government … have been engaged in an assiduous, concerted campaign to persuade the Government of South Africa to withdraw”. To their disgust, US officials discovered that the crudely partisan trade treaties they had forced South Africa to sign offered them no help: the country’s actions remain perfectly legal. So instead of pursuing their claim through the World Trade Organisation, they started applying unilateral pressure. Preferential trade treatment for South Africa has been withdrawn. Its government has been told that the US will apply sanctions if it persists in its attempt to stop the spread of AIDS. The US Vice-President and the French, Swiss and German heads of government have helped to hammer the message home.

The United States is determined never to let anything like this happen again. Last month Congress, with President Clinton’s blessing, passed the “African Growth and Opportunity Act”. From now on, African countries will receive American aid, trade concessions and debt relief only if they agree to hand over their key assets to US corporations, and promise to keep cutting public spending. Education and healthcare on the continent, including, of course, Africa’s AIDS prevention programmes, will be progressively snuffed out. As Senator Richard Lugar, one of the sponsors of the Bill, observed, “important as our child survival, health, agriculture, educational and humanitarian programs have been, they have not … benefitted the American economy. For that reason, it is time to re-evaluate our policy.”

Western democracy is suffering from a dreadful virus. It causes an auto-immune disease, which forces the body politic’s defence system to turn against its own tissues. America is just the first country to be felled by this illness which respects no borders. Left unchecked, corporate power will kill every democratic government on earth.