WASHINGTON — The Bush administration signaled Tuesday that it will not reverse an executive order issued by President Clinton last year that potentially would make it easier for impoverished African nations to have access to AIDS drugs at inexpensive prices.
The executive order, which had been opposed by congressional Republicans and pharmaceutical companies, said that the United States would not fight the efforts of African nations to gain access to generic or other versions of the drugs.
Multinational pharmaceutical firms have been fighting cheaper-drug availability, arguing that protection of patent rights and "intellectual property" is critical to their long-term ability to fund research to develop new and more effective medicines.
Without referring directly to the executive order, a brief statement issued Tuesday by Joseph Papovich of the U.S. trade representative's office declared that the Bush administration "is not considering a change in the present flexible policy."
"The HIV/AIDS crisis is a terrible tragedy for countries, families and individuals," the statement said. "The USTR is not considering a change in the present flexible policy. Consistent with our overall effort to protect America's investment in intellectual property, the USTR will seek to contribute to administration efforts to work with countries that develop serious programs to prevent and treat this horrible disease."
More than 22 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are believed to be infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS. But most Africans and their governments cannot afford the latest drug treatments that have had such a powerful effect on prolonging the lives of Americans and those in other Western countries with AIDS.
Efforts of developing countries to obtain cheaper AIDS drugs stem from a legal loophole in the provisions of global trade rules known as compulsory licensing, which allows countries to breach patents during national health emergencies.
The South African government, for example, is seeking to import or manufacture cut-price versions of AIDS drugs--including considering an offer from an Indian company to sell it generic versions. That effort is being challenged by more than 40 drug companies in court. The first legal arguments will be heard March 5 in the Pretoria High Court.
A "cocktail" combination of powerful AIDS drugs that costs about $10,000 to $15,000 annually in the United States could cost as little as several hundred dollars in poorer nations if generics became available.
Activists, who in recent years have been trying to find ways to help sub-Saharan African countries and other nations gain access to low-price drugs, welcomed Tuesday's announcement.
"This is a very good thing," said Jamie Love, director of the Consumer Project on Technology, part of Ralph Nader's Center for Study of Responsive Law. "People were concerned that the Bush people would be really bad on this--but this announcement demonstrates a sensitivity to the issue."
Pharmaceutical companies regard the local manufacture of drugs or importation of cheap generic drugs--so-called parallel importing--as a threat to their profits and fear that the drugs eventually will make their way into Western markets if they are allowed to flourish in developing nations.
While U.S. drug companies had not been actively pressuring the new administration to rescind Clinton's executive order, they were unhappy with the Clinton administration's move to relax U.S. enforcement of patent and international trade laws and were hoping that the Bush White House would either reverse or alter it.
U.S. drug company officials said they were disappointed by the trade office statement.
The Bush administration "is just continuing the same process" as the Clinton administration, said Mark Grayson, a spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers of America, the U.S. drug industry trade group.
"They could have taken this opportunity to streamline the executive order but at this time chose not to do so," he said. Nevertheless, "we believe countries still have to comply with [global trade agreements], and we would expect the USTR to support this."