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Programme highlights Thursday, 19 April, 2001, 14:24 GMT 15:24 UK
Cheap AIDS drugs now possible
South African AIDS victim Lindokuhla Mkhwanazi
The high cost of AIDS drugs means many die

The world's leading pharmaceutical companies have abandoned their court case against the South African government.

The outcome should mean cheaper drugs for the country's health service - particularly for the treatment of AIDS.

39 companies had accused the Government of failing to respect their international patents by allowing the use of cheaper, generic copies of drugs.

But their efforts to prevent the use of generic drugs has brought them a torrent of bad publicity and accusations that they are allowing millions of people to die by keeping prices high.

I think the drug companies did the right thing to withdraw

Zackie Achmat

On Wednesday, when the case was due to resume after a 6-week adjournment, it became clear that the pharmaceutical companies, damaged by the public response, had no further stomach for the fight.

This morning, counsel for the companies stood up in court and said, 'By the consent of all the parties, we would simply ask your Lordship to note that the application is withdrawn.'

The companies also agreed to pay the full costs of the case on both sides.

When the action was withdrawn, the South African Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang celebrated with champagne, saying "This is a victory not just for South Africa, but for Africa and the whole developing world."

Demonstrators outside the court this week
Public pressure was intense

But she cautioned that there were still issues to face: "The issues of affordability are still with us....The drugs are not affordable as far as we are concerned. That is why South Africa has opted for managing treatable diseases (associated with HIV and AIDS)."

She added that the government was worried about the safety of the antiretroviral drugs, saying "There are problems and we do not have the answers."

Campaigners rejoice

One of the decisive elements in the case was the intervention of an organisation called TAC - Treatment Action Campaign.

The judge allowed TAC - as a friend of the court - to enter its own submissions. Among other things, they wanted the pharmaceutical companies to reveal the evidence on which they based their claims, including precise details of how they funded their research, and the profitability of individual drugs.

Zackie Achmat is the self styled leader of TAC who is HIV positive. - a man who has gained a huge amount of media fame during the case.

He told The World at One that the campaigners had brought a human element into the story which everyone could understand, and that this had led to widespread international and local condemnation of the drugs companies.

He said he felt the case set an example for many developing countries who cannot afford expensive drugs.

The companies

South African Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang
Jubilant outside court

The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association in Geneva represents many of the companies who were involved in the case in South Africa.

Its Director General, Harvey Bale told The World at One that the companies had not capitulated but that they had simply "established a new partnership" with South Africa.

South African hopes

Patricia Lambert is the legal adviser to the South African health minister. We spoke to her as she was leaving court and asked her whether she saw this as a victory for the Government.

She considered that the end of the case was an unequivocal victory for South Africa and set a precedent for other poor countries.

She stressed that there was no deal or settlement with the pharmaceuticals so the legislation in South Africa which allowed generic drugs to be used was still intact.

The legislation meant that now South Africa can parallel import drugs and that pharmacists will be obliged to allow compulsory generic substitution - where the choice whether to buy a patented drug or a generic copy will be up to the patient.

Zackie Achmat of TAC
"The mood of the crowd in the court was ecstatic"
Patricia Lambert, legal advisor
"I would say it's an unequivocal victory"
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