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[NAIROBI] Africa should build its research capacity and harness its rich biodiversity to reduce its dependence on multinational pharmaceutical companies for essential medicines, the secretary-general of the African Academy of Sciences (AAS), Gideon Okello, said yesterday (16 September).

Speaking at a regional conference on HIV/AIDS in Nairobi, Kenya, Okello said that the continent would always suffer drug shortages and high human fatality if it continued to rely on drug donations and “gifts or substitutes from money-hungry multinational foreign companies”.

He called on Africa to follow the example of India, China and Japan, which have developed home-grown treatments based on herbal medicine. “The methods of treatment need to be revisited in order to incorporate alternative home-grown treatments based on traditional herbal medicine, adequately researched and incorporated into the healthcare systems,” he said.

Basic research in herbal medicine must be strengthened, he said, as a way of ensuring HIV therapy is made available to a large proportion of the continent’s population. Most people with HIV/AIDS in Africa are denied full treatment, he said, because of the continent’s failure to exploit the rich biodiversity in herbs and plants from which new drugs could be made.

“Research into traditional herbal medicine has the potential of leading to the discovery of a cure for HIV/AIDS,” he said. But he added that powerful pharmaceutical companies from the North have opposed plans by some African governments to integrate traditional medicine into their national healthcare systems.

Okello also voiced concern that virtually all pharmaceutical companies are located in the developed world. “The concentration of pharmaceutical industries in the North means the sales and profits are generated there.”

Of the US$400 billion that these companies earn annually, Africa contributes only US$5 billion in drug sales, he said. “The North can therefore do without Africa and still make huge profits.”

Furthermore, drug patents, he said, are usually held for at least 20 years, which would mean that Africa would have to wait for two decades before these were relaxed (and cheaper generic versions could be produced). "Even if a vaccine (for AIDS) were to be successfully developed now, there is still the hurdle of the so-called ‘trickle-down’ paradigm in which developing countries receive vaccines long after they are licensed in industrialised countries.”

Okello said most of the international funding available is inadequate “and is at any rate directed towards prevention and not treatment.”

The meeting, 'Is HIV/AIDS a threat to political stability in Africa?', was organised jointly by AAS and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a German, non-profit public-interest institution. It brought together scientists from more than six African countries.

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