Something to Be Done: Treating HIV/AIDS
David E. Bloom, 1 River Path Associates 2
Largely because of disparities in access to drug treatment and care, AIDS morbidity and
mortality have fallen in the developed world but continue to rise among
developing countries. Achieving more equitable access to AIDS drugs is hindered
by high drug prices, technical complexities related to the provision of health
care, and conflict among stakeholders. Recognition that health is vital to
the prospects of the emerging global society must be combined with new
mechanisms to help all stakeholders work together cooperatively. Tiered drugs
pricing should be coupled with investment in health services. An independent
"Global Task Force," able to act as an "active think tank,"
could build consensus about the way forward.
1 Department of Population and International Health, School of Public
Health, Harvard University, Boston, MA 02115, USA. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
2 61a West Borough, Wimborne, Dorset BH 21 1LX, UK. E-mail: email@example.com
Although prevention remains the first line of defense against HIV/AIDS, caring for the
millions of people now living with AIDS is an essential element of our reaction
to the epidemic. AIDS is increasingly a disease of the poor (1),
and currently, as Ugandan AIDS doctor Peter Mugyenyi has noted, "The medicines
are where the problem is not, and the problem is where the medicines are
Effective care programs have many features, but at their heart are interventions that
make a substantial impact on the quality and length of people's lives (3). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now lists over
40 approved therapies that slow or disrupt viral replication or treat
opportunistic infections (4), and as a result of these, the
number of AIDS deaths has fallen dramatically across Europe and the United
States. In the United States, for example, deaths fell from 49,895 in
1995 to 17,171 in 1998.
Although educated and relatively wealthy patients have been successful in marshaling
the medical and social support necessary to mount an active and ongoing defense
against the disease, the situation is much bleaker for most of those infected
with HIV. Poor levels of education, economic development, and health not only
encourage the disease's spread, they also inhibit effective care. First,
medical interventions are expensive, with highly active antiretroviral therapy
(HAART) costing up to $20,000 per person per year. Second, health systems are
inadequate, with as few as 10% of the population of the developing world having
consistent access to health care and even highly developed health systems failing
to deliver benefits to disadvantaged populations. Third, those with compromised
immunity are weakened by poor nutrition and a lack of safe water. Fourth, the
disease burden in developing countries is disproportionately high, heightening
the dangers from a disease that attacks the immune system. Tuberculosis (TB)
and AIDS interact especially powerfully and have been dubbed the "dual
epidemic." Fifth, the social structures that are the bulwarks of any care
program are being overwhelmed by the severity of the epidemic.
This paper explores the major obstacles impeding a more effective response to the
problem of AIDS care: the technical complexities that offer no easy
"win-win" solutions and the friction between major stakeholders that
have made this a controversial and often explosive subject. We call for a
global response to a problem that is inextricably linked to globalization and
warn that a failure to act now will not only be catastrophic for entire
regions, but will further erode confidence in the capabilities of our emerging
global society (5).
Ensuring access to more effective AIDS care is complex and has four distinct facets:
affordability, finance, delivery, and rational selection.
The affordability of treatment has attracted much recent attention. Globally,
antiretrovirals are only used by 1% of those with HIV, and drugs for treating
opportunistic infections are also poorly distributed. Through patents,
pharmaceutical companies receive monopolies on new drugs, offering companies
the chance to earn a return on their investment in R&D, both for the
patented drug and for other unsuccessful research. Critics identify pricing
differentials between countries as evidence of unfairly exploiting a
monopoly. Pfizer's Fluconazole is $11.90 per 200-mg dose in the United States
and $13 in South Africa. In Thailand, where local companies compete with
Pfizer, the price is $0.69 (6). The unwillingness of
pharmaceutical companies to reveal their investment and pricing policies leaves
them poorly placed to refute charges of profiteering and increasingly
vulnerable to activist pressure.
Expensive and complex treatments burden well-funded health services, and there is
evidence of informal rationing of treatment, even in developed countries (7). Financing in developing countries is currently extremely
limited, despite growing evidence of the importance of health to development
within the modern global economy (8). South Africa, for
example, spends $279 million on all drugs, compared to a defense expenditure of
$4.19 billion (9). Namibia spends a paltry $42,000 on its
AIDS program and receives $126,000 from European Union and $36,000 from
the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) (10).
Even when drugs are cheap or free, problems remain. Delivery systems are inadequate or
nonexistent across much of the world, as shown by the failure to make progress
against TB, despite the widespread availability of effective remedies.
Similarly, major drug donations have not been immediately successful, with
bitter arguments about responsibility for distribution and treatment protocols.
Yet, there is unmet demand: The People's Health Organisation (India), for
example, describes the new drugs as "promising heaven, but giving
bankruptcy." The organization recommends HAART to patients on the basis of
wealth, rather than disease stage, with patients advised to take the full
combination, take a reduced combination, or avoid antiretrovirals, depending on
income. As World Bank President James Wolfensohn argues, high prices offer
governments little incentive to build health infrastructure (11).
AIDS is one of several serious diseases facing developing countries, and decisions on
the allocation of limited funds remain controversial. Is it better to spend on
nutrition or care, education for prevention, or sexually transmitted disease
treatment, when all of these will have an impact on the AIDS epidemic? Further,
the future consequences of interventions must be addressed. Plentiful access
to cheap TB drugs in Russia fueled drug-resistant TB, an enormously expensive
problem. Stepping up AIDS care requires selecting treatment interventions
appropriate to delivery. It is quite conceivable that more virulent and even
less treatable forms of HIV will emerge as the result of the inability to
sustain complex courses of medication, itself often a result of the expense of
Conflict and Confrontation
Beyond the technicalities of widening access to treatment lie a series of political
conflicts that continue to make it difficult to secure change. Access to drugs
and treatments was fiercely contested throughout 1999, with acrimony among
key stakeholders. The U.S. government, for example, threatened sanctions
against South Africa in support of the pharmaceutical's legal action against
the South African Medicines Act. This would have allowed compulsory licensing
of AIDS drugs (where drugs are made locally and the intellectual property
holder compensated at a rate set by the state) and parallel importing (cheaper
drugs imported from other markets). Activists, however, mounted a vigorous
campaign against the action. In 1999, for example, "307 public health
experts and concerned persons" wrote to Vice-President Al Gore, accusing
the United States government of protecting the pharmaceutical industry against
global competition, ignoring the biggest public health crisis in recent
history, and leaving people without access to pharmaceutical drugs to die (12).
In 2000, a more constructive approach emerged. In January, the United States
completed a policy U-turn, by instigating an unprecedented UN Security Council
debate that recognized AIDS as a threat to world security (13).
On 10 May, President Clinton followed through with an executive order,
intended to ensure that, within the scope of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual
Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement, HIV/AIDS-related drugs and medical
technologies become more accessible and affordable in sub-Saharan Africa (14). The next day, UNAIDS announced that five major drugs
companies had agreed to ensure rational, affordable, safe, and effective drugs
for HIV/AIDS-related illnesses, stressing the need for a new commitment to
tackling AIDS from national governments and the global community and
substantial investment in building efficient, reliable, and secure distribution
systems. The French government, meanwhile, continues to press for an
international fund for therapeutic solidarity, which would use public and
private resources to promote access to AIDS drugs.
Reaction to these initiatives has not been wholly positive. Médecins Sans Frontières
described the industry offer as minor, "much like an elephant giving birth
to a mouse" (15). Nothemba Simelela, head of the South
African HIV/AIDS directorate, was also suspicious: "There is little trust
between pharmaceutical companies and this government, but obviously we will not
kick them in the teeth if they are offering real assistance" (16). Alan Holmer, president of Pharmaceutical Research and
Manufacturers of America, described the executive order as setting "an
undesirable and inappropriate precedent [and] a discriminatory approach to
intellectual property laws" (17). Debrework Zewdie, World
Bank AIDS coordinator, noted that "even if the drugs were free, we would
still have a horrendous problem getting this [offer] to work," and thinks
that the drug companies may have opened a Pandora's box (18).
Continued progress, therefore, relies on steering a path through technical complexity
while drawing stakeholders into more productive partnerships.
A major step on the affordability of treatments has been taken by the acceptance of
tiered pricing for AIDS drugs. Consolidation, however, requires four steps.
First, future R&D into HIV/AIDS remains an overriding priority. Activists
must forgo using price reductions in developing countries in their arguments
for lower prices in developed markets, and pharmaceutical companies must receive
limited protection against parallel importing (19). Second,
pharmaceuticals companies should acknowledge through their actions that AIDS is
a global emergency and there is natural public interest in both developed and
developing market prices. Greater public oversight of the industry is required
through access to information and "trust--but verify" mechanisms to
scrutinize commercially sensitive information on profit levels and R&D
Third, separate action is needed to address underinvestment in research into diseases
that affect the poor (20). Tax incentives, schemes to
guarantee markets, and direct public investment should all be considered,
whereas the public and nonprofit sectors should explore ways of receiving a
greater share of the ongoing returns on their 54% investment in health care
R&D (21). Finally, the debate on price needs to extend
beyond pharmaceutical manufacturers, with governments from developing countries
addressing import tariffs, taxes, and distribution margins, which the pharmacy
industry claims account for two-thirds of African drug prices (22).
As treatment prices fall, a strong case for increased investment in care arises. Donor
countries, philanthropic foundations, and multilateral organizations should
match greater investment from developing countries. Much of this money should
be dedicated to delivery systems, along the lines suggested by Hans Binswanger
elsewhere in this issue (23). It is possible to scale up
existing, successful HIV programs.
Finally, rational selection of interventions needs consideration within a much broader
context than cost-effectiveness, which calculates return on a limited and
short-sighted basis. Globalization will be fatally undermined if it continues
to act as a vehicle for greater inequality. Life expectancies are falling in a
growing number of countries, reversing key development gains of the 20th century.
Tackling AIDS--on all fronts--is a political imperative. Better health is a
powerful tool for social inclusion, and at the heart of any vision of a fairer
Bringing Stakeholders Together
The signs that stakeholders are prepared to work more constructively together are
encouraging, but more is needed. Further investment is required in techniques
to extend trust across stakeholders (itself a valuable form of international
social capital) (24). Although peace has broken out
publicly, tensions are still running high in private. External, unbiased
mediators will help to focus minds on solutions; George Mitchell in the Irish
peace process and Desmond Tutu in the South African Truth and Reconciliation
Commission are good models. We also suggest exploring creative approaches
to problem solving, like scenario planning, which has been successfully used to
engage antagonistic stakeholders in Colombia, South Africa, and Japan (25). As the French government has argued, traditional
conferences, with a succession of speeches and sterile debate, must be avoided
at all cost.
Second, we think that broader and deeper partnerships should be developed, with parties
committed to more open, transparent, and inclusive ways. Too many negotiations
occur behind closed doors, inevitably raising suspicions among excluded
parties. Those with AIDS need a stronger voice, and the wider business
community must get involved. Pharmaceutical companies hold only part of the
answer. Businesses have the scale, finance, channels, and motivation to
significantly influence the course of the epidemic (26).
Finally, it is essential that developing countries display ownership of the
problem, with UNAIDS--relocated in Africa--acting as a facilitator for
initiatives such as "regional pharmacies," where buying power and
expertise are pooled transnationally to change market dynamics.
Third, we suggest a new, inclusive forum, with a global profile, to act as an
"active think tank" and develop a consensus on ways forward. This
"Global Task Force" on access to AIDS care should have a wide remit,
a budget to call witnesses and operate a secretariat, and a guarantee that
world leaders will pay serious attention to its findings. Members would have a
high profile and experience in the issues, but they would act as individuals
rather than as representatives of the constituencies from which they were
drawn (27). The task force should be unequivocally free of
ties to all existing stakeholders and aim to inform and catalyze (rather than
duplicate) their efforts.
The Global Task Force would act decisively and quickly, reporting on the role of
intellectual property in health, within the context of rapid changes in the
concept of intellectual property in the knowledge economy, and outlining a
clear framework for invoking World Trade Organization exemptions that allow for
compulsory licensing and parallel imports. It would also provide an independent
forum to explore pricing levels (discussed above) and set bold but
achievable targets for improving access to treatment. It would explore
incentives, delivery, and management issues, including care tailored for the
poor and marginalized, where treatments are chosen to transcend, as far as
possible, the limitations of delivery systems (28).
Finally, it would work to build global support for new investment in AIDS
treatment. After all, the public will support spending more money--but only if
convinced that something can indeed be done (29).
REFERENCES AND NOTES
- Ninety-five percent of HIV-positive people live in developing
countries. Furthermore, our analysis shows a correlation of 0.49 across
51 countries with the requisite data between the absolute poverty rate in
1990 (the percentage of population living on less than $1 per day) and the adult HIV
prevalence in 1997.
- M. Schoofs, "Part 8: Use What You Have," in the series
"AIDS: The Agony of Africa," Village Voice, 29 December
1999 (available at http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/9952/schoofs.shtml).
- Enhancing Care Initiative, "AIDS Care Framework" (available
- For a complete list, see FDA, "Approved Drugs for HIV/AIDS or
AIDS-Related Conditions," last updated 6 July 1999 (available at http://www.fda.gov/oashi/aids/stat_app.html);
"Antiretroviral Drugs Approved by FDA for HIV," last updated 2 March
2000 (available at http://www.fda.gov/oashi/aids/virals.html).
- See also D. E. Bloom and River Path Associates,
"Social Capitalism and Human Diversity" (The Creative Society of the 21st
Century, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Paris, in press).
- Fluconazole is used to treat cryptococcal meningitis, which affects
~9% of people with AIDS and is otherwise fatal. Responding to criticism, Pfizer has now
offered to develop a joint program with the South African Ministry of Health to deliver
the drug "free of charge through appropriate medical specialists" (from letter
from Pfizer to Mark Heywood of the Treatment Action Campaign on 31 March 2000;
excerpts can be found at http://report.kff.org/archive/aids/2000/04/kh000403.1.htm.
- J. Zuniga, Int. Assoc. Physicians AIDS Care J. 4, 23
(1998) (available at http://www.aegis.com/pubs/iapac/1998/IA980401.html).
- D. E. Bloom and D. Canning, Science 287, 1207 (2000) [ISI]
- W. Hartley, "AIDS Hearings Turn Acrimonious," Business
Day (Johannesburg), 10 May 2000 (available at http://www.africanews.org/health/stories/20000510/20000510_feat5.html).
- Figures drawn from C. Maletsky, "Anti-AIDS Drugs `Out of
Question' for Nam," The Namibian (Windhoek), 11 May 2000 (available
- M. Waldholz, "Makers of AIDS Drugs Agree to Slash Prices in
Third World," Wall Street Journal, 11 May 2000.
- J. Love (director, Consumer Project on Technology) and
306 other signatories, "Open Letter to Vice-President Al Gore,"
1 August 1999 (available at http://www.cptech.org/ip/health/sa/goresignon.html).
- For an overview of this U-turn, see B. Gellman, "A
Conflict of Health and Profit," Washington Post, 21 May 2000, p.
- "Presidential Order on AIDS Drugs," 10 May
2000 (available by searching http://usinfo.state.gov/products/pdq/wfarchive.htm).
- Médecins Sans Frontières, "MSF Reaction to UNAIDS
proposal" (press release), 11 May 2000 (available at http://www.msf.org/un/reports/2000/05/pr-unaids/).
- P. Sidley, "South Africa: Skepticism Greets AIDS Treatment
Plan," Business Day (Johannesburg), 15 May 2000 (available at http://www.africanews.org/health/stories/20000515/20000515_feat1.html).
- Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, news release,
10 May 2000 (available at http://www.phrma.org/news/5-10-00a.html).
- D. Pilling, "Cheap Medicine Exposes Africa's Woes," Financial
Times, 19 May 2000 (available by searching http://www.globalarchive.ft.com).
- There is already resistance in the United States to cheaper prices
abroad [see (28)].
- Only ~1% of new medicines commercialized over the past
25 years, for example, were designed to treat tropical diseases [ B. Pecoul, P.
Chirac, P. Trouiller, J. Pinel, JAMA 281, 361 (1999) [ISI]
- Ad Hoc Committee on Health Research Relating to Future Intervention
Options, Investing in Health Research and Development (World Health Organization,
Geneva, 1996); see also J. D. Sachs, "Helping the World's Poorest," Economist
(14 August 1999) (also available at http://www.cid.harvard.edu/cidsocialpolicy/).
- H. E. Bale Jr. (director-general, International Federation of
Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Associations), "AIDS in Africa," testimony before
the United States Committee on Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs
(available at http://www.ifpma.org/pdfifpma/Testimony-Feb24.pdf).
- H. P. Binswanger, Science 288, 2173 (2000) .
- For an overview, see M. R. Reich, Nature Med. 6, 3
- See, for example, the work of the Global Business Network in this
area (available at http://www.gbn.org/public/gbnstory/scenarios/).
- D. E. Bloom, A. Rosenfield, River Path Associates, "A
Moment In Time: AIDS and Business" (American Foundation for AIDS Research,
30 November 1999) (available at http://www.riverpath.com/library/library.html);
D. E. Bloom, L. Reddy Bloom, River Path Associates, in The Africa
Competitiveness Review, World Economic Forum, Ed. (Oxford Univ. Press, New York, in
- This approach has been used successfully in many contentious
situations (for example, in the Low Page Commission, which set the UK minimum wage in
1998, with a minimum of controversy).
- J. Laurence, AIDS Reader, in press.
- River Path Associates, "You Made Africa Boring: Towards a New
Vision for Development," 1998 (available at http://www.riverpath.com/library/library.html).
- The opinions expressed herein are our own, but the authors are
grateful to the following individuals for helpful discussions, materials, or comments on
an earlier draft of this piece: R. Bayer, B. Bloom, T. Bombelles,
T. Brown, J. Cleves, J. Cohen, S. Crowley, R. P. Eddy,
W. El-Sadr, R. Frank, K. Frost, S. Glied, W. S. Gordon,
D. Jamison, S. Janovec, D. Johns, C. Juma, J. Laurence,
M. Lavalloy, G. Macdonald, A. Mahal, M. Merson, M. Reich,
A. Rosenfield, J. Silver, and D. Zewdie.