On July 8, ABC's World News Tonight aired two stories on the subject of treating AIDS in African countries. ABC's conclusion: It's better for poor Africans to die than to have access to cheap AIDS drugs.
The South African government is currently in a trade dispute with the United States over this issue: South Africa, which is in the midst of an AIDS epidemic, claims the right to license local pharmaceutical manufacturers to produce cheap generic versions of AIDS drugs that would otherwise be unaffordable for poor South Africans. The U.S. has taken the side of American pharmaceutical companies, who are trying to put a stop to the practice, known as "compulsory licensing."
The ABC stories were largely a brief for the drug industry. Jennings started out by framing the debate: "Should the wealthier nations provide AIDS drugs to those countries that cannot possibly afford them?" The debate over compulsory licensing has nothing to do with wealthy nations providing drugs; its about whether poor nations should be allowed to produce their own generic drugs, as they are authorized to do under international trade laws.
In the first segment, ABC News correspondent Jackie Judd claimed that "many health professionals agree" with the drug industry's claim that "cheaper drugs alone are never the answer," since AIDS "patients need to be closely supervised, which the South African medical system cannot provide."
But Judd presented no evidence that anyone has ever argued that "cheaper drugs alone" are the "answer." This argument seems, instead, to be a straw man manufactured by the pharmaceutical industry to justify its opposition to the production of cheaper drugs. The only "health professional" Judd used as an on-air source for this claim was Thomas Bombelles, a spokesman for PhRMA, a consortium of large pharmaceutical companies.
Before her story aired, Judd had in fact contacted James Love, a health economist who directs the Consumers' Project on Technology in Washington, and one of the United States' leading experts on compulsory licensing for AIDS drugs. Love told Judd that the industry's spin was wrong -- that compulsory licensing would have a positive effect on public health in Africa. But neither Love, nor his concerns, was mentioned in Judd's piece.
Judd also could have quoted Mark Biot, who oversees AIDS programs worldwide for Doctors Without Borders. He told the Chicago Tribune (4/28/99) that "clinics in most of the larger cities of the developing world would be fully equipped to handle AIDS patients if they had access to affordable drugs." The Tribune reported that physicians who treat AIDS in developing countries call the drug industry's warnings about resistant strains a "false issue."
The second segment was by ABC reporter Richard Gizbert in Zambia. After introducing a Zambian AIDS patient named Veronica, Gizbert says "The newest [AIDS] drugs are hard to get here as well. But even if they were available, Zambian officials believe it is better to let someone like Veronica die than to give the drugs without the proper supervision. Because in Zambia, they agree with the drug companies, that anything less than a full course of treatment with the right drugs could result in the HIV virus mutating into something even more deadly."
Again, ABC is stressing that Zambian officials "agree with the drug companies." In fact, the Zambian health official quoted in the broadcast says only that "supportive services" are needed for AIDS patients--hardly a startling position.
Gizbert concludes by reporting that "Zambia is letting its people die today so that thousands, maybe even millions can be saved tomorrow." No evidence is presented that the Zambian government is choosing to allow people to die. As Gizbert himself reports, Zambia does not have the resources to provide drugs to its AIDS-stricken population even if it wants to.
After the segments, anchor Peter Jennings added "one final note about the drug companies -- Glaxo Wellcome that makes the AZT drug has cut drug prices to some African countries. And Bristol-Myers Squibb, the makers of three of the AIDS drugs, says it is spending $100 million in Africa on AIDS-related programs."
Jennings did not mention that AZT normally sells in the U.S. for more than ten times the cost of production--or that the drug was invented and identified as a useful treatment for AIDS by the U.S. government, not by Glaxo Wellcome.
Nor did ABC note that much of Bristol-Myers Squibb's money will fund the training of doctors to do research for the company in Africa. As Dan Berman, also of Doctors Without Borders, told Time magazine (7/12/99), "A lot of the companies are using the cheaper labor costs and the lack of ethical codes in developing countries as a way to get the trials done more cheaply and quickly."
ACTION ALERT: Please call on ABC News to return to the issue of medicine for Africa's AIDS crisis--with a report that does not uncritically accept the pharmaceutical industry's spin that Africa can't be trusted with affordable AIDS drugs.
ABC World News Tonight
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You can read a version of ABC's report at ABCnews.go.com/onair/CloserLook/wnt990708_aidsdrugs.html