High-profile HIV+ Bolivian activist Gracia Quiroga Violeta Ross, founder of Bolivia's first organisation for people with HIV and a Tearfund Inspired Individual, challenges Obama to take on the Goliaths of the pharmaceutical industry.
One of my highlights of 2012 was meeting President Obama. As an HIV-positive Bolivian who spends my life speaking up, with and for people who are affected by HIV, it was an honour for me to meet the leader of the free world and have the opportunity to encourage him to keep his commitments to address the spread of HIV and make life-saving medication easily available.
This World AIDS Day, my message to him remains the same: the free trade agreements that the US sign with countries like Peru, Panama, India, Argentina and many developing countries are not helping any of us who are living with HIV.
I feel like those of us who are calling for this are like David, and we’re up against the Goliath of the US Government’s compliance with the pharmaceutical companies.
I’m not a poor person. I’m a middle-class, educated, well-travelled Bolivian, fortunate to have good opportunities and some financial stability. But even people like me are now finding it difficult to afford the costs of medication and treatment.
We know the pharmaceutical companies will continue to do what they have always done - get money and profit - and they don’t care if this happens at the cost of our lives.
But at least, let’s avoid giving them money to do this. I know some of the research used by pharmaceutical companies comes from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and once they “discover” something, it is patented immediately and we don’t have access. We can’t allow profit interests to be a priority over the lives of people.
I agree we have to patent many things, for example this laptop that I write with, my shoes, a gel for hair loss, you can patent those.
But please don’t patent medications that are needed for people in the developing world!
President Obama, you are doing so many great things and I congratulate you on your re-election.
But you will be letting down millions of people if you do not stop entering free trade agreements that give all the benefits to corporations and particularly pharmaceuticals and don’t take note of the effects on people who are in need.
I thank God for the progress we have made so far on HIV treatment, especially in Africa. But I call upon Obama not to forget the Bible’s call to love your neighbour. In the US’ case, their nearest neighbours are Latin America and the Caribbean regions which are so often overlooked.
Still there are places, my own country included, where antiretroviral medication is not free of charge and where people struggle to get access to it. It’s easy for us to feel like we’re the last in the queue for international support.
Middle income countries like ours are losing out because of the impact of the intellectual property chapter in free trade agreements, which means that medications are treated as any other product and then the prices go up to levels as high as 10,000 US dollars per person per year.
The pharmaceutical companies are profit driven and don’t think about who their drugs help. Some antiretrovirals have patents that are about to expire. If this happens, they will quickly ask for a second and even a third patent, arguing a new presentation when in fact there is no real discovery. The experts on intellectual property rights call this ‘abusive patents’, and I completely agree.
President Obama, you know the story of David and Goliath as well as I do, and surely one of the lessons it holds for us is that the big person is not always on the winning side. Why would you side with Goliath, and not with the Davids among us?