AIDS in the Southern Hemisphere

The problem of AIDS is far smaller in the northern hemisphere than it is in the south, particularly in Africa. The following resources provide information on HIV/AIDS around the world:

Part of the problem faced by poor (or poorer) nations in the battle against AIDS is a lack of cheap access to AIDS drug cocktails. Drugs are expensive, and many of these nations argue that they are unable to pay the high prices of such medications. To understand the response of one nation in this situation (Brazil), we should look at some background.

Drugs are protected by patent law. Patent law gives a company the right to be the exclusive seller of a drug. Pfizer, for example, has the exclusive right to sell Viagra. In the United States, this effectively removes all competition from the market, allowing Pfizer to be the only company earning money from Viagra’s formula. Once the patent expires, others will be allowed to get into the game of selling the Viagra formula (at presumably lower prices, since the market will then have competitors instead of one player).

In 1996, Brazil’s AIDS crisis was large enough that it determined not to wait for drug patents to expire. So, it started violating those patents by making generic versions of patented drugs and giving them out to AIDS sufferers inside the country. Naturally, this prompted an outcry from drug manufacturers, who had invested billions of dollars into AIDS research and did not like to see their formulas copied without being rewarded.

Several questions arise from this international dilemma:

  1. Should drugs be subject to patent protection? In other words, should drugs ever be protected by the patent monopoly that companies currently enjoy? A strong argument could be made for the “No” answer by basing it on the claim that good health should not be a commercial product, but a basic human right.
  2. When should nations feel obligated to violate drug patents? What should be the conditions under which a nation decides to break a patent and either buy or produce generic drugs?
  3. Is Brazil a model for other poor nations? Check out this link for an argument to that effect; and this one for some recent news. Here’s a critical article on Brazil’s approach.
  4. Why should AIDS be treated with special considerations? If Brazil is justified in breaking patents for the sake of AIDS, why not other diseases as well?

Filed under: Bioethics, Uncategorized

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