AIDS in many African countries was catastrophic having infected as much as a third of the population. Worldwide, by 2000, over 24 million people had died of the disease while over 40 million were living with it majority of them in African countries with South Africa alone having over 4.7 million living with the virus. Most of the deaths were also happening in Africa. This could be attributed to many factors chief among them the high price of anti-retroviral drugs, lack of information, cultural factors, poor nutrition, poverty, lack of medical facilities and failure to practice safe sex. The pharmaceutical companies carry a big part of the blame for their policies that denied the poor in Africa access to the drugs.
Though access to anti-retroviral drugs is not solely to blame for the increased cases of HIV/AIDS infection, it nevertheless accounts for a big part of the problem. The Brazilian experience is a good example of what availability of drugs can do to the problem. Brazil under the program 'Free Drugs for All' reduced AIDS related deaths by 50% within a period of four years between 1996 and 2000. This was after availing the drugs to all who needed it under a government program that secured generic drugs at a third of the price U.S pharmaceutical companies were selling the drugs. There is therefore no question as to whether availability of drugs would have reduced the African problem significantly. If the Brazil experience was to be replicated in Africa, it means half of the lives that were lost through AIDS related diseases would have been saved and millions of dollars more in medical expenses.
The poor in Africa did not however get that opportunity due to the capitalistic behavior of the Western pharmaceutical companies that place profit making interests ahead of the responsibility to save lives. By their own admission, the profit interests of their shareholders took precedence over the need to save lives in Africa. This begs the question of the extent to which shareholders profit making interest should go when the company is faced with an issue that requires social responsibility. What is clear is that by providing these drugs at subsidized prices in Africa, the companies would not have made losses at least gauging by their reported profits. The most that could have happened is a slight reduction in profits. If the Western pharmaceutical companies were not ready to produce the drugs at reduced costs or if reducing the costs would not make business sense, they would have allowed the affected countries to seek generic drugs. It is argued that the availability of generic drugs would reduce the prices of drugs by 50-90%.
Denying the Africans access to the generic drugs would not have made business sense because at any rate treatment using the non-generic drugs costs between $10,000 and $15,000 per year and with the annual per capita incomes in Africa ranging from $450 to $ 8,900, it is clear there is few if any who could afford the drugs. What the pharmaceutical companies were doing is denying the availability of generic drugs in Africa for the fear that the drugs may spread to the Western countries and reduce prices there affecting their profits. It is therefore an ethical question of whether it is right to watch people, whose lives could be saved die in order to protect business interest.
The profit-making motive should be tempered with a sense of social responsibility. Pharmaceutical companies should consider themselves as existing to make drugs in order to save lives. The profit making should flow automatically out of the drugs that were sold. Where a patient cannot afford a drug and the pharmaceutical company is able to provide the patient with the drug, the company should take it as a responsibility to do so more so in partnership with the concerned government to the extent doing so will not bankrupt the pharmaceutical company. That way the company will save lives that will form a market for the rest of its products in future.