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South Africa: No AIDS emergency

President Thabo Mbeki on Wednesday rejected appeals to declare South Africa's AIDS epidemic a national emergency, a step that would enable the government to override patents owned by foreign pharmaceutical companies and buy or manufacture cheap, generic versions of life-prolonging anti-AIDS medicines.

Addressing Parliament, Mbeki said he did not think it was necessary to invoke a World Trade Organization provision that allows member nations to suspend patents in cases of extreme national urgency.

An estimated 4.2-million of South Africa's 45-million people are infected with the virus that causes AIDS, more than in any other country.

With only a fraction of the population able to afford potent anti-retroviral drugs and other therapies, Mbeki's government has been under pressure to take steps that would make anti-AIDS drugs available and affordable. At the same time, the government is wary of taking any drastic steps that would scare off foreign investment or raise questions about its commitment to free markets.

The government passed a law four years ago that permits its health minister to bypass drugmakers' patents to provide cheaper generic versions of the treatments. But that law, which is narrower than the WTO provision, is being challenged in court by a coalition of pharmaceutical companies.

If the trade pact's national emergency clause were activated, all property rights in South Africa would be temporarily suspended, and many in the country's business community have raised concern over the signal that would send abroad.

"No other country has declared a state of emergency on these grounds," Mbeki said. "We see no reason why we should not rely on the more comprehensive legislation approved by this Parliament."

The pharmaceutical giant Merck agreed this month to sell at drastically reduced costs two of the roughly 14 medicines used to treat the AIDS virus. And an Indian drug manufacturer, Cipla, has asked South Africa to grant it a license to sell cheap, generic anti-AIDS drugs to the government.

On Wednesday, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. said it will sell the two AIDS medicines it manufactures "at cost" to sub-Saharan African countries and would not prevent South Africa from ignoring patent rights the company holds on one of the drugs.