President Thabo Mbeki rejected appeals to declare South Africa's AIDS epidemic a national emergency, a step that would enable the government to override patents owned by foreign pharmaceutical firms and buy or manufacture cheap, generic versions of life-prolonging anti-AIDS medicines.
Addressing Parliament here Wednesday, Mbeki said he did not think it necessary to invoke a World Trade Organization provision that allows member nations to suspend patents in cases of extreme national urgency, without the patent holders' consent.
An estimated 4.2 million of South Africa's 45 million people are infected with the virus that causes AIDS, more than in any other country in the world.
With only a fraction of the population able to afford the potent antiretroviral drugs and other therapies offered by multinational pharmaceutical firms, Mbeki's government has been under intense pressure to take steps that would make anti-AIDS drugs available and affordable. At the same time, the government is wary of taking any drastic steps that would scare off needed foreign investment or raise questions about its commitment to free markets.
Labor unions, activists and opposition politicians have called on Mbeki's governing party, the African National Congress, to declare a state of emergency that would make cheaper drugs available.
Meanwhile, pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. announced Wednesday that it will sell the two AIDS medicines it manufactures at "below cost" to sub-Saharan African countries, and pledged to allow South Africa to bypass the company's patents on one of the drugs in order to produce or buy a cheaper version.
The announcement came one week after Merck & Co. said it would lower prices of its two anti-AIDS drugs in some developing countries.