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So much for the free market
DRUG COMPANIES, making medicines that could save millions of lives, recently brought a court action against the South African government. They aimed to stop it buying cheaper drugs. So much for the "free market"!
Now the world's most profitable major industry has been forced to back off. The court case threatened to expose its profiteering at the expense of sick and dying people.
One in nine South Africans live with HIV/Aids - more than any other country. Drugs that would keep them alive and well cost £7,000-10,000 per patient per year. Most South African workers earn less than £2,000 a year. Drug copies (generics) are available, costing as little as £130 a patient a year.
But it wasn't just bad publicity that made them retreat. 5,000 supporters of the Treatment Action Campaign marched on the South African parliament, putting pressure on the government to stand firm.
US students pressed universities to use their patent rights to stop drugs companies preventing poor countries from buying generic versions.
The drugs industry's biggest fear is that cheap generic drugs could become more widely used in their super-profitable markets - North America, Europe and Japan.
The five biggest companies' combined profits are $25.2 billion.
Their exaggerated claim for Research and Development spending is $16.7 billion. They spend much more on marketing than research.
Much research money is spent on modifying existing drugs to prolong their patents or on copying their rivals.
They spend much more on research for the developed world's "lifestyle problems" like obesity, than on illnesses in the less developed countries where money is scarce.
Having won the right to buy cheap drugs, the South African government is now under pressure to start buying generic anti-Aids drugs.
But the ANC Health Minister said: "People who want access to (these drugs) can go to the private sector."
Meanwhile, the drug companies say they'll offer cheaper drugs to the public sector but not the private. So Aids rights groups will probably end up campaigning against the government.
Two of the biggest companies - Glaxo SmithKline and AstraZeneca - are based in London. A socialist government would nationalise them, compensating only small shareholders.
This would provide cheap drugs to the NHS and free drugs to the world's poorest peoples. It would set an example for workers in other countries to follow.
In South Africa, Aids could claim the lives of half of all 15-year olds. Socialist action around the world would save them.
In The Socialist 27 April 2001: