It isn't much, but it will pass for good news in AIDS-ravaged Africa, where 5500 people die every day from the disease. One day after President Clinton cleared the way for African countries to make or import generic HIV-AIDS drugs free from fear of U.S. retaliation, five pharmaceutical giants agreed to negotiate the sale of these drugs at sharply reduced prices in regions hit hardest by the epidemic. This move at least indicates that the outside world is beginning to awaken to the horror story that AIDS has become in Africa, where 11-million people already have died from the disease and another 23-million are carrying the HIV virus.
Clinton's executive order, declaring that the U.S. will not enforce its patent laws on countries seeking AIDS drugs at lower costs, was unusual but appropriate, given the extent of the crisis in sub-Saharan Africa. Congress itself might well have done the same had the pharmaceutical companies not been so effective in pressuring lawmakers to defeat the no-retaliation amendment offered recently by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
By itself, the companies' decision to cut prices overseas won't do much to alleviate the suffering. Even at sharply reduced prices, these drugs will still remain beyond the reach of millions of impoverished Africans. Prevention offers the best hope for slowing the spread of AIDS, but most poor countries lack the educational and public health infrastructure that is needed for a sustained prevention program.
Clearly, much more has to be done. The drug companies can be part of the solution, but the industrialized nations, including this one, and international public health agencies will have to make a greater commitment to arresting the spread of AIDS in Third World countries. It's too easy to beat up on greedy pharmaceutical companies and ignore the international community's responsibility to act with compassion and a sense of urgency.