WASHINGTON — As the AIDS epidemic continues to ravage sub-Saharan Africa, President Clinton issued an executive order Wednesday meant to help nations in the impoverished region obtain inexpensive drugs and medical technologies to treat the disease.
The presidential order, which could be overturned after Clinton leaves office in January, would bar the U.S. government in most cases from seeking to reverse policies in sub-Saharan nations that would require distribution of AIDS drugs or other treatments at lower cost.
Pharmaceutical companies have come under increasing pressure to allow countries facing an AIDS emergency to license generic versions of otherwise costly drugs or import those drugs at lower cost. The companies maintain that they are trying to cooperate but that they must also preserve revenue from sales to help pay for research in the race to develop AIDS vaccines and a cure.
"This order will give sub-Saharan governments the flexibility to bring lifesaving drugs and medical technologies to affected populations," Clinton wrote in a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has sought congressional action on the issue.
Feinstein and other senators have tried to improve the availability of AIDS drugs in Africa through an amendment to a pending trade bill supported by the Clinton administration. The president's order was timed in part to firm up support in the Senate for the bill, which would give more than 70 countries in Africa, Central America and the Caribbean greater access to U.S. apparel markets.
Clinton's order lends the authority of the U.S. government, acting through its trade and commerce agencies, to efforts to solve a desperate dilemma: More than 22 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are believed to have the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, which can lead to acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS. But most of the Africans and their governments cannot afford the latest drug treatments.
As he issued the order, Clinton said his action was consistent with international agreements that safeguard the property rights of high-tech exporting companies.
The pharmaceutical industry disagreed. The order "sets an undesirable and inappropriate precedent by adopting a discriminatory approach to intellectual property laws and focusing exclusively on pharmaceuticals," Alan Holmer, president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said through a spokesman.
Defending its record, the industry group said it is developing 102 drugs--including 11 vaccines--to treat AIDS and AIDS-related disorders and has brought 61 drugs onto the market in the past 13 years.
Clinton's order defused a threat by Feinstein to mount a filibuster against the trade bill, which last week passed the House and this week is expected to pass the Senate.
But it did not stop Feinstein from taking to the Senate floor to vent her outrage that her proposal to promote the availability of AIDS drugs in Africa recently was jettisoned from the trade bill in final negotiations on the measure.
Accusing lobbyists for pharmaceutical companies of waging a stealth campaign to defeat her proposal, Feinstein said: "I don't know how these people sleep at night. I really don't."
In an emotional speech, Feinstein rattled off the grim litany of AIDS statistics in Africa. She said she could empathize with the region's plight because of her own experience in dealing with the disease as mayor of San Francisco during the 1980s.
"The virus has already killed more than 11 million sub-Saharan Africans. . . . And nobody cares," Feinstein said. "We must make every effort to get appropriate medicine into the hands of those in need."
Unlike Clinton's order, which could evaporate under a new president, Feinstein's amendment would have made the AIDS drug-availability policy a matter of law.