Picking the right fight as a Yale activist

Two years ago, AIDS activism catapulted Yale into the national spotlight. Doctors Without Borders, a Nobel Prize-winning humanitarian group, had asked the University to relax the patent for its famous AIDS drug, d4T, in South Africa, because the prices charged by the drug’s producer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, were too high for African governments.

After weeks of pressure, Yale and Bristol-Myers relented, and BMS announced that it would become the first company to allow generic versions of its AIDS drug to be produced in Africa. The story hit the front page of The New York Times and Yale was voted “Most activist campus of the year” in Mother Jones Magazine’s annual rankings.

Two years later, AIDS activism at Yale is all but dead.

Last week, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc., a frequent target of AIDS protesters, announced that it would build a $35 million research facility near campus. Not a peep could be heard from Dwight Hall. Other issues — from the war on Iraq to graduate student unionization — have diverted attention from AIDS, one of the most daunting global crises ever to befall mankind.

The reason is straightforward. Unlike graduate student unionization, Yale Corporation reform, and other popular social justice causes, the AIDS epidemic has little impact on our daily lives. With AIDS, there are few local targets to rally against.

The most prominent student movements in my four years here — the union movement, the Sooty Six campaign, the struggle to reopen New Haven’s overflow shelter — have all focused on local targets, whether it be the Yale administration, the Connecticut state government, or the New Haven city council. Even the sweatshops campaign, which affected workers in Latin America and Southeast Asia, managed to find a Yale-specific angle — the issue of who produces Yale apparel, and under what conditions.

The AIDS movement has not been so lucky. Few college campuses have successfully mobilized students en masse around any AIDS-related cause. Yale’s short-lived d4T campaign was a rare exception. And it’s no surprise that in its aftermath, the emergent Yale AIDS network was unable to find another AIDS-related cause to build a strong undergraduate base around. The nascent Yale AIDS Watch, which had their first meeting last week, will face the similar challenge of trying to develop campaigns that hit students close to home.

That’s where Pfizer comes in. It offers an easy target for Yale’s activist groups to lobby and a straightforward goal to lobby for — namely, the lowering of its drug prices in developing countries.

Currently, the company owns the rights to several major AIDS drugs. The most popular is Diflucan, which treats opportunistic infections that afflict up to 40 percent of AIDS patients. It also controls the rights to Rescriptor, an antiretroviral drug marketed by Pharmacia, a company Pfizer acquired last summer. Like Bristol-Myers Squibb, Pfizer has come under heavy criticism for charging high prices in African nations.

Granted, the topic of intellectual property rights in developing countries is a complicated, thorny issue. It is true that allowing generics into the African market may impact Big Pharma’s incentive to produce more AIDS drugs. But sales in the world’s poorest countries comprise a negligible portion of the pharmaceutical industry’s total AIDS revenue. And many pharmaceutical companies have begun to develop ways to allow cheap versions of their drugs into African economies, while still protecting their profits back home.

Indeed, Pfizer itself has made several strides on that front. Two years ago, Pfizer announced that it would donate Diflucan for free to South African vendors that met certain requirements. Even better, Pharmacia is in the final stages of developing a pact that would allow a Netherlands generic drugs producer to manufacture generic versions of Rescriptor, while paying a 5 percent royalty to Pharmacia.

Such progress is the direct result of AIDS activism. Without pressure from Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam International, and numerous other humanitarian groups, few pharmaceutical giants would have begun helping out with the AIDS epidemic.

Even more importantly, these activist groups have helped push the issue of AIDS in developing countries into the national spotlight. Indeed, what’s needed most on college campuses today is for broad-based campus movements to simply spread the word about the gravity of the AIDS epidemic.

In the fight against AIDS, lowering drug prices is only one part of the overall answer. More importantly, developing countries must improve their healthcare infrastructure, continue to promote the use of condoms and other preventive methods, and mobilize the resources necessary to alter public perceptions about AIDS and safe sex. The best way the developed world can contribute is by helping to finance these initiatives.

Yet politicians will be willing to allocate the billions of dollars necessary to battle AIDS in Africa only once the seriousness of the AIDS epidemic is embedded in the public consciousness.



Sahm Adrangi is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column appears regularly on alternate Wednesdays.


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