The third world war on HIV/AIDS isn’t working. It’s something we all recognize: that unsettled sensation we get as the world continues to bring the crisis to the forefront of injustice, calling on pop stars and politicians to throw sound bites and support around the world, and yet, we get the feeling…it just isn’t working. Infection rates are increasing. Access to treatment is decreasing. We still don’t have a cure.
My point is not to be pessimistic or promote the hopelessness that leads so many of us to sit by and be passively appalled, but rather to instill in you a sense of urgency. Children are dying today. New infections are occurring today. It is today that we are obligated to act—but not just to act in the ways we’ve been acting. If we’ve learned anything about HIV/AIDS in the past two decades, it should be that our current tactics aren’t enough. We must develop a new form of action, and I propose the best action we can take is a wide-scale HIV/AIDS drug patent buyout.
In its simplest form, this buyout would consist of the United States buying from pharmaceutical companies the patent rights to any FDA-approved drug that effectively treats HIV/AIDS. Companies would be paid $1 billion for each patent (totaling $12-13 billion up front), and the government would gain the right to produce these medications. Medications would then be made available at cost to NGOs specializing in HIV/AIDS treatment, which would distribute them globally.
The most salient impact of such a buyout would be economic. Many experts agree it is impossible for third-world nations to develop so long as their limited resources are drawn to HIV/AIDS. In trying to meet the astronomical costs associated with treatment and prevention, these countries continue to take out loans from the World Bank, and the high interest rates and restrictive repayment conditions of these loans hasten countries’ descent into poverty. By lessening the financial burden of HIV/AIDS, we give these countries the freedom to put their resources into development, eventually leading to more stable international markets and efficient, responsible trade.
A by-product of this international economic development would be international political development. The world is becoming more connected, and international bodies like the United Nations must become more authoritative leaders in global regulations, legislation, and development. Yet this can only happen when the extreme power differences that define international politics today are lessened. Although there are many factors in this process, controlling the HIV/AIDS epidemic is certainly a major one.
Despite these potential benefits, however, there are many arguments against a patent buyout. The most common one, that treating HIV/AIDS isn’t a cost-effective solution for society, is the most essential to disprove. By showing that HIV/AIDS patients, can, despite their illness, contribute to society so much that the cost of the treatment is worth it, there can be no other choice but to provide them with the treatment they need. Value of life arguments aside, HIV/AIDS tends to strike hardest at the 25-34 year-old group that constitutes the backbone of societies. The premature death of these individuals leaves a hole in society that cannot be filled. Furthermore, governments must try to fill this hole, often at great financial and human cost. The governmental care for AIDS orphans in South Africa has cost countless dollars and opportunities, and everyone is worse off for it.
The second major argument against the buyout questions the appropriateness of the United States as the main actor. Indeed, in an ideal world, a project like this would fall to an organization like the United Nations. Yet with differences in patent law in countries around the world, and a United Nations often bogged down with petty politics, the fastest way to realize this buyout is through a single government actor. Since many of the most successful HIV/AIDS medications are produced by U. S. pharmaceutical companies, this actor should be the United States.
Additionally, the United States should enact this buyout because it can. The $12-13 billion required for this plan is not much more than the United States spends annually directly fighting HIV/AIDS, and indirectly fighting its effects, such as extreme poverty. By acting as a unilateral agent in this buyout, the United States saves time and lives and sets an international standard for other countries to follow.
I’m not asking you to believe that the idea of a patent buyout is flawless. Indeed, a perfect plan is not the defining characteristic of this argument. Rather, this is an argument about our obligations to humanity. Even if this program has flaws, if the flaws are outweighed by the benefits, then it will still be worth it. No matter where we are in the world, we must respect the sanctity of all human life. HIV/AIDS is a crime against humanity, and if we allow that crime to continue unchecked, we must all declare ourselves guilty.