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For the biggest, gravest, most consequential intellectual property fight of our times, look no further than access to lifesaving drugs in Africa. The scourge of AIDS on that continent is already shaking traditional notions of patent rights to their foundations. Posterity may judge our age by how we respond. The facts in this global face-off could not be more harsh.

On one side are the desperate and dying. According to the United Nations, over 2.4 million Africans died from AIDS last year in a pandemic that, if unchecked, will claim more lives than the Black Death that swept Europe in the 14th century. But this is not even the worst part of the story. While some 25 million Africans carry HIV today, fewer than 25,000-one-tenth of one percent-currently receive drug treatments that could save or at least prolong their lives.

On the other side in this life-and-death battle, in the gold-plated jerseys, are the giant, multinational pharmaceutical firms-GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Novartis, Pfizer, to name a few. They are some of the world’s most profitable companies. According to one estimate, sales for the top 10 U.S. drugmakers exceeded manufacturing costs by $100 billion last year. These technological titleholders have the awesome power and resources to save many of Africa’s AIDS victims. All they have to do is ease their choke hold on their intellectual property. But even a modern-day plague of unthinkable proportions has yet to loosen that grip.

To their credit, last year the world’s biggest drug firms did announce plans to cut prices in some African countries and even give some drugs away to the Third World nations hardest hit by AIDS. More telling, though, is what they haven’t done: condone the sale of generic copies of their lifesaving products to the world’s neediest patients. In Ghana, GlaxoSmithKline has even moved to block the sale of generic copies of one of its AIDS drugs. It is a reprehensible and misguided strategy that will produce no good.

If there’s a lightning rod in this debate, it is Yusuf Hamied, chief executive officer of Cipla, India’s largest drug manufacturer. Last September, Hamied announced that his firm, as a public service, could distribute generic versions of the most-needed AIDS medications at a tiny fraction of the cost charged by the patent-holding companies.

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Tagged: Biomedicine

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