U.S. & Other Firms Sue South Africa Over AIDS Drugs

By Nicole Itano | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Pretoria (CNSNews.com) - Pharmaceutical companies went before a South African court Monday in an attempt to stop the country, which has the world's highest percentage of AIDS sufferers, from importing or producing cheaper generic AIDS drugs.

The Pharmaceutical Manufacturers' Association of South Africa and more than three dozen drug companies, including some of America's largest, are trying to overturn a never-implemented 1997 law that allows the minister of health to import generic versions of patented drugs or to license their domestic production.

Pretoria says the provision is necessary to make otherwise expensive AIDS medications accessible to South Africans, 10 percent of whom are believed to be infected with HIV/AIDS, and that the law is legal under both the nation's constitution and international trade regulations.

But Mirryena Deeb, head of the SA pharmaceutical association - which is leading the fight against the Medicines and Related Substances Control Amendment Act - said the law was too broad and gave the health minister unilateral power to violate their patents.

AIDS policy activists counter that the drug companies are putting profits above lives.

"From our point of view, this case is about something very simple. It's about the right to life or greed," said Zakie Achmat, chairman of the Treatment Action Campaign, which petitioned the court Monday to become a party to the case on behalf of the government.

The hearings are expected to last at least until the end of the week, and both sides have said they will likely appeal to the nation's Constitutional Court if they lose.

Outside the Pretoria High Court, where the case was being heard, and at other courts around the country, hundreds protested in support of the government's case.

Later, the Pretoria crowd marched to the United States Embassy to submit a petition calling on the U.S. government to support cheaper AIDS medicines for South African sufferers.

The international headquarters of at least one of the company's involved in the suit, British pharmaceutical manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline, was also picketed Monday.