VICE PRESIDENT Gore stands accused of defending pharmaceutical industry profits at the expense of South African AIDS patients. Welcome to campaign season. The AIDS activists who have heckled Mr. Gore at his early appearances, seeking to drown him out with chants of "Gore's Greed Kills," manipulate the facts in what is actually a much more complicated and interesting debate.
International trade law protects drug company patents, and for good reason. Companies invest large sums in research that often leads nowhere but sometimes produces valuable new medicines. If the industry can't recoup its investment through drug sales, here and overseas, it won't look for new drugs, and everyone will suffer -- Americans and foreigners alike.
But poor countries chafe, understandably, when medicines that could save lives are priced beyond their reach. This conflict between the legitimate interests of industry and those of the developing world has no ultimate solution, but avenues of compromise can be found. More foreign aid from wealthy countries could be targeted to health care and specifically to encourage the development of medicines useful to the developing world. Developing countries could devote a larger share of their budgets to primary health care, thereby creating more of a market for useful drugs. Drug companies could more often settle for lower profit margins when selling or licensing products to poor nations, especially when the alternative is no sales at all.
In 1997 South Africa approved a new law, aimed at making medicines more affordable, that multinationals deemed a threat to patent rights. An industry lawsuit is still pending in South Africa's courts, so the law has never been implemented, and its effects remain unclear.
The two practices it might condone, to which industry objects, are compulsory licensing and parallel importing. Under the former, the government could force a multinational to grant manufacturing rights, for a fee, to a local producer; the latter would allow the import of legally produced medicines from a third country where they might be cheaper. South Africa maintains that both may be permitted under international law in certain cases. Industry for the most part dislikes both ideas.
The Clinton administration, led by Mr. Gore, has sought to protect industry's legal position. You could make a case that it should push harder to help South Africa get access to drugs it can afford. But Mr. Gore has not been as one-sided as industry -- or many Republicans in Congress -- would like. Last year the U.S. drug industry persuaded a Republican congressman from New Jersey, home to many pharmaceutical giants, to attach a provision to the foreign-aid bill blocking U.S. assistance to South Africa's government until the State Department explained what it was doing on industry's behalf. The congressman, Rodney Frelinghuysen, wasn't satisfied with the department's first report, so it submitted a revision, portraying itself more strongly as a champion of U.S. industry.
Language from that report -- ordered up because the industry perceived the administration as too soft on South Africa and dutifully delivered by the administration to forestall a cutoff of U.S. aid -- is now cited by Mr. Gore's critics on the other side as evidence that he is in industry's pocket. As we said, welcome to the campaign.