Court hearing has global implications

AIDS Drug Test Case: World's Pharma Unions Back South Africa

ICEM Update, No. 10/2001, 5 March 2001

Countries must have the right to buy AIDS medication at an affordable price.

That call was issued in Copenhagen this morning by the leader of trade unions in the world's pharmaceutical industry.Ê

Fred Higgs, General Secretary of the 20-million-strong International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM), was speaking as a crucial court case opened in South Africa today.Ê

Developing countries' access to medication is at issue in the test case between the South African government and 39 big pharmaceutical companies.Ê

To protect their patents, the major drug corporations are asking the court to stop the implementation of a South African law aimed at providing cheaper medicines. The law would permit the country's health minister to use parallel importation of drugs, compulsory licensing and generic substitution (cut-price "copy" drugs) where necessary.

Application of this Act has already been delayed for several years by the legal wrangles. The measure is particularly important to the fight against HIV/AIDS in South Africa, which has one of the world's highest rates of HIV infection.Ê

"As part of the ICEM's programme to combat HIV/AIDS, we believe that South Africa and other countries must have the right to buy the appropriate pharmaceuticals at prices that they can afford," said Higgs this morning. He was in South Africa last week at an ICEM conference where African and Asian unions adopted a programme of action on HIV/AIDS.

"We hope that the South African courts will defend South Africa's rights in this regard," Higgs added. "We ask ICEM-affiliated unions to express their support for the South African government's position."Ê

ICEM affiliates include pharmaceutical workers' unions worldwide.

Higgs was speaking at the congress of the ICEM-affiliated Danish Women Workers' Union (KAD), which is celebrating its centenary this year. Over a thousand delegates are attending the congress.