The United States and South Africa reached an agreement yesterday that supporters say eases the way for the manufacture and sale of more affordable AIDS drugs in South Africa.

The joint "understanding" negotiated by U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky also alleviates a potentially thorny political issue for Vice President Gore less than a week before he meets in New York with South African President Thabo Mbecki.

Barshefsky agreed to support South Africa's drive to make less expensive versions of AIDS medications available to its disease-stricken people in exchange for a pledge that South Africa would not violate U.S. patent laws.

"The United States very much appreciates South Africa's assurance that, as it moves vigorously forward to bring improved health care to its citizens, it will do so in a manner consistent with international commitments that fully protects intellectual property rights," she said in a statement. "This will enable us to set aside this issue from our bilateral trade agenda."

At the heart of the dispute is a South African law designed to provide better access to low-priced AIDS treatments. American pharmaceutical companies see the law--which allows South Africa's health minister to bring in cheaper imports or locally produced generic drugs--as an infringement on their patent protections. More than 40 companies based in the United States, South Africa and Europe filed suit challenging the law, but recently suspended that court action as negotiations between the two countries progressed.

On the campaign trail this summer, Gore has been hounded by a small band of protesters who accused the vice president of siding with wealthy drugmakers over millions of poor South Africans infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

"Gore's greed kills," the protesters frequently yelled at Gore, claiming he threatened Mbecki with trade sanctions if South Africa permitted the widespread sale of cheaper drugs.

But Gore has steadfastly maintained he never made those threats and yesterday his spokesman said the vice president was ready to help Mbecki tackle the AIDS epidemic in South Africa, where an estimated 1,500 new infections occur each day.

Barshefsky's announcement was the second time this week a Clinton administration decision redounded to Gore's political benefit. On Thursday, the administration abandoned its early objections to exporting encryption technology, a decision that pleased the newly influential high-tech industry.

Yesterday, drugmakers and AIDS activists embraced the oral agreement as an encouraging first step.

Under the agreement, "the South Africans can produce drugs cheaper and do it within international law," said Daniel Zengale, executive director of AIDS Action, a major health lobbying group. "South Africa has clearly done its part. . . . We hope this sets the stage for addressing the epidemic more broadly and addressing the fundamental problem of drug pricing."

Jeff Trewhitt, spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said the industry believes South Africa's new health minister appears "very flexible" in working with the companies to offer better, more affordable care to the people of her country.

The agreement leaves unresolved the precise details of how South Africa will both abide by international patent laws and make less-expensive AIDS drugs available to patients there. One trade official suggested the South African government is attempting to find a way to adequately compensate drug makers for the licensing of AIDS medicines.