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Drug firms play down fears of clash with Brazil

Protestors in South Africa campaigning for cheaper AIDS drugs

Swiss drug firms have denied they are heading for a confrontation with Brazil over its policy of producing cheap copies of patented drugs to fight AIDS.

Thomas Cueni, director of Interpharma, the association of Swiss pharmaceutical industries, told swissinfo that the relationship with Brazil was “exemplary”.

His comments came after 52 countries on the 53-member UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva backed a Brazilian resolution calling on states to ensure people with HIV and AIDS have access to essential medicines.

Playing down fears of a potential clash, Cueni said: “When you look into the relationship between a company such as Roche and Brazil, it’s very long-standing.”

“Roche has been one of the most important investors from the Swiss pharmaceutical industry side in Brazil for decades and has a long-standing relationship of cooperation and dialogue with the minister of health there. Therefore I don’t think that we are here in a confrontation.”

However Cueni warned that patents needed to be protected if Swiss drug companies were to continue investing enormous sums in finding new cures.

The Brazilian resolution urged “the international community, the developed countries in particular, to continue to assist the developing countries in their fight against … HIV/AIDS.”

Only the United States, which is involved in a trade dispute with Brazil, abstained, describing the resolution as “a flawed health document” unrelated to human rights.

Brazilian officials hailed the vote as a victory for their country’s stance of making the cocktail of drugs used in the treatment of AIDS, and the HIV infection that precedes development of the disease, available at low cost or free.

“We are very pleased at this outcome,” said Frederico Mayer, Brazil’s minister for political affairs. “We have a very successful programme against AIDS and this will help show the world what can be done.”

The resolution was also welcomed by the Nobel Prize-winning charity, Medecins Sans Frontieres, which said the Brazilian government’s programme allowed it to offer free treatment to more than 90,000 patients.

“It sends a very positive signal,” said the charity’s AIDS policy expert, Ellen ‘t Hoen. “The debate on AIDS drugs is about how far you can go to protect public health – and this vote gives extra support to countries that want to protect health.”

The passing of the resolution comes a week after 39 major pharmaceutical companies, including Switzerland’s Roche and Novartis, dropped their legal challenge to prevent South Africa from importing cheap copies of patented AIDS drugs.

A group of 28 development and aid organisations in Switzerland, including Swissaid and Terre des Hommes, had denounced the suit as putting profit margins and patents before the health of millions of people.

AIDS campaigners have urged pharmaceutical companies to offer cut-price drugs to developing countries to help fight the disease.

According to the UN AIDS programme, 36.1 million people are living with AIDS around the world, with some 70 per cent of them in sub-Saharan Africa and about 18 per cent in Asia and the Pacific.

swissinfo with agencies

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR