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The BBC's George Eykyn
"South Africans with Aids now believe their government is beginning to fight for them"
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Mark Heywood, Treatment Action Campaign spokesman
"The outcome of this case has huge ramifications in South Africa and also internationally"
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Monday, 5 March, 2001, 11:07 GMT
Court battle over Aids drugs
African aids sufferer
Drugs are too expensive for many sufferers
A legal dispute with far-reaching consequences for Aids prevention in developing countries has begun in the South African capital, Pretoria.

The act would do nothing for access to quality and affordable medicines

Pharmaceutical Manufacturers' Association
Multinational pharmaceutical companies are challenging a proposed new law which would allow South Africa to import medicines from the cheapest source - perhaps India or Brazil - and so give far greater access to drugs.

The government says that, under existing arrangements, it cannot afford the drugs it desperately needs to combat Aids and other diseases.

The 39 companies, including Boehringer-Ingelheim, Glaxo Wellcome, Merck and Roche, say the government's plan would threaten their patent rights.

Cipla Ltd in India has offered to supply inexpensive AIDS drugs
India is offering cheaper Aids drugs
Several hundred protesters gathered in Pretoria as the hearing began, carry placards with slogans like "Aid$ profiteers, deadlier than the virus" and "Free treatment for all".

Correspondents say the dispute is an enormously important one - both to the global pharmaceutical companies and to the South African Government, with other developing countries looking on.

In South Africa, a quarter of a million people died from Aids last year and one in 10 of the population is HIV-positive.

The pharmaceutical companies say the proposed new law could endanger profits and future research.

Mirryena Deeb, head of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers' Association of South Africa which represents the large companies, said the case was about whether the government respected the rule of law.

Many within the world's pharmaceutical industry will use any tactic to defend their patents, whatever the cost in human suffering

Aid organisations
"The act contravenes the country's constitution and its own Patents Act and would do nothing for access to quality and affordable medicines," she said.

Aid organisations have urged the pharmaceutical giants to drop the court case, claiming South Africa's proposals are legal under World Trade Organisation rules.

"This legal challenge is a warning to other developing countries that many within the world's pharmaceutical industry will use any tactic to defend their patents, whatever the cost in human suffering," the organisations Oxfam and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said in a statement on Monday.

The stalemate about access to cheaper medicines has been going on for three years, and now that it has gone to court it is likely to drag on even longer.

Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang told journalists she was confident that the government would win its case.

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See also:

21 Feb 01 | Business
Glaxo offers cheaper Aids drugs
03 Feb 01 | Americas
Brazil in US Aids drugs row
12 May 00 | Africa
Aids initiative 'no magic cure'
24 Oct 00 | Aids
Aids drugs factfile
28 Nov 00 | Africa
Africa's Aids burden
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