Reuters - Fri Apr 29, 2005
AIDS Drugs Dog U.S.-Southern Africa Trade Deal
By Alfonce Mbizwo
The United States and the Southern African trade bloc are set to revive free trade talks next month, but analysts say intellectual property rights for urgently needed AIDS drugs remain a stumbling block.
The Southern African Customs Union (SACU) — made up of South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and Swaziland — is due to resume negotiations with U.S. officials within the next two weeks, most probably in Botswana, officials said.
Trade talks in Atlanta collapsed last year in part due to disagreements over AIDS drugs, with SACU pushing for the right to manufacture more generic versions of the medicines to help it respond to the region’s crippling HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Tenu Avafia, a senior researcher at the Trade Law Center for Southern Africa think-tank, said the U.S. position was "very restrictive" because generic pharmaceutical manufacturers must wait five years before using U.S. patent holders’ technology.
This could delay access to affordable anti-retroviral (ARV) medicines in SACU countries as the region battles the world’s worst HIV/AIDS pandemic and widespread poverty, he said.
"The Free Trade Agreement may prove to be useful for market access into the U.S. for our products, particularly agriculture," Avafia said.
"But the role of intellectual property in the FTA negotiations is (unclear and there is) nothing to be gained by the SACU countries," he said.
U.S. officials declined to make an official comment.
South Africa now licenses the production of a number of generic HIV/AIDS drugs under agreements with western pharmaceutical firms.
But activists want more generics on the market, saying cheap access to ARV drugs is key to fighting an AIDS epidemic which has infected an estimated 5 million people in South Africa alone and millions more across the region.
South Africa’s Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) said the new talks could collapse again if the two parties fail to move from their original positions.
"There are difficulties in the talks and such difficulties are evident in the fact that we have not been able to move forward because we are struggling to bridge the gaps," said Victor Mashabela, the DTI director for the Americas.
The United States wants a deal which guarantees zero duties on all trade with the bloc, but SACU appears unprepared to make the sweeping changes demanded by Washington, analysts say.
SACU’s exports to the United States last year were $6.8 billion - with South Africa accounting for $5.9 billion - against imports of $2.9 billion.
Other issues between the two sides include U.S. agricultural subsidies — which many African farmers say price them out of the market — and South African policies on government tenders which U.S. firms say threaten to exclude them.