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Thursday, 19 April, 2001, 12:20 GMT 13:20 UK
SA Aids case: The repercussions
African children
Aids is widespread in South Africa
The world's leading drug firms unconditionally drop their legal challenge to stop South Africa selling cheaper versions of Aids drugs. BBC Health Correspondent Karen Allen analyses the potential consequences.

Although the challenge brought by some of the biggest players in the pharmaceutical world focused specifically on South African legislation - the repercussions will be felt by the whole of the developed world struggling to obtain not only potent anti-retroviral drugs for treating Aids, but also basic medicines for infections linked to HIV like tuberculosis and meningitis.

Treating these won't eradicate the virus which has already infected 26 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, but it could at least buy those living with the disease more time.

Will it mean more people having access to Aids drugs?

Allowing countries to shop around for cheaper Aids drugs won't automatically make them more widely available to those that need them most, but it is a start.

South Africa, like many of its neighbours, still lacks the infrastructure to use these complicated drugs effectively.

Doctors require specialist training; systems for regularly monitoring patients who are on medication need to be put in place and drug supplies must be guaranteed.

The South African government will now be under pressure to deliver on this front.

What will it mean for other countries looking to import cheap drugs from overseas?

Like many other developing countries, Kenya has been watching the case closely.

It has the same world trade obligations as South Africa and is poised to introduce legislation allowing it to import cheap copies of drugs from overseas and possibly produce it's own versions at home.

That could mean not only anti-retroviral drugs being available more cheaply but also treatments for related infections like meningitis being imported from countries like Thailand, at prices 20 times cheaper than the market rate.

What about countries producing their own copies of drugs?

This is a slightly less clear. The pharmaceutical companies want less ambiguous rules to clarify the circumstances in which poorer countries can produce patented drugs at cheaper prices.

Whilst sub-Saharan Africa represents just 1% of the global market for these drugs - they are concerned that cheaper drugs could find their way onto black markets in richer nations where higher prices generate revenue to cover research and development costs.

Brazil already makes cheap copies of patented Aids drugs and has faced threats of legal action. But home produced medicines has seen Aids related deaths drop by half in the past four years.

What about the global picture?

The drug companies have conceded that the South African case marks a turning point in the way they do business with the developing world.

There's already pressure to introduce a sliding scale of prices for essential drugs which would enable the poorest countries to benefit from permanent discounts.

The collapse of the South African court case is likely to accelerate this process.

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See also:

19 Apr 01 | Africa
SA victory in Aids drugs case
15 Mar 01 | Africa
Analysis: Aids drugs and the law
24 Oct 00 | Aids
Aids drugs factfile
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