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Friday, 6 September, 2002, 09:53 GMT 10:53 UK
China may break Aids drug patents
Chinese Aids victim
Aids carriers are often ashamed to come forward
China will be forced to break patents on Western Aids drugs unless foreign pharmaceutical companies agree to cut prices by early next year, a top health official said.

Qi Xiaoqiu, head of the Department of Disease Control of the Ministry of Health, said China wanted to respect patents, but that time is running out.


Any government, when facing a dilemma between profit and the life and health of its people, should choose to protect the lives and health of its people

Qi Xiaoqiu
Talks with pharmaceutical firms are underway, but Mr Qi told a briefing in Beijing that an agreement must be reached within the next few months.

"(Otherwise) we will have to take the other choice," he said. "We cannot afford to wait any longer."

Mr Qi said about a million people in China are infected with the HIV virus, a figure that could rocket if nothing is done to halt the disease.

China has been in talks for months with GlaxoSmithkline PLC, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co and Merck Co Inc., which already sell Aids drugs in the country.

Chinese negotiators are trying to persuade the drug firms to slash prices beyond the up to 80% reductions already made this year.

"We believe that any government, when facing a dilemma between profit and the life and health of its people, should choose to protect the lives and health of its people," Mr Qi said.

A decade ago, China promised to respect intellectual property rights in the pharmaceutical industry.

Several countries, including Brazil and South Africa, have used a provision under World Trade Organisation rules that effectively allows members to break drug company patents by making cheap generic Aids medication.

Rising numbers

A year ago, the official estimate for the number of Chinese people infected with the HIV virus was 600,000. A few months ago, it was increased to 800,000.

Mr Qi now puts the figure at about a million.

International organisations like the United Nations believe that is still an underestimate, and that China has an enormous problem on its hands.

Chinese officials are trying to be more candid, but at the same time, they are passing the blame on to provinces which they say do not report many HIV cases.

Local officials, they say, do not want to admit that they are failing to control the spread of HIV/Aids, and they blame the carriers as well for being too embarrassed to come forward for HIV tests.

China is still highly sensitive about the subject. Those who reveal too much risk being silenced by the authorities.

It now appears that China's best-known Aids campaigner is being held by state security officials. Wan Yanhai vanished a fortnight ago.

There has been no official confirmation that he has been arrested, but colleagues from the independent Aids Action Project, which he founded eight years ago, say public security officials have told them he is accused of spilling state secrets.

It is thought his crime was to refer to government health ministry documents in a recent e-mail he sent.

Mr Wan has campaigned to reveal the true size of China's Aids problem, exposing practices like the selling of contaminated blood. His organisation was banned in July.


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