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Activists: Settlement Likely in South Africa AIDS Case

AIDS activists say the South African government is about to reach a settlement with leading pharmaceutical companies to end their legal battle over the sale and manufacture of generic AIDS drugs. The news came as a judge postponed the opening hearings until Thursday to allow time for the two sides' legal teams to finish negotiating the deal.

The crowd of AIDS activists outside the Pretoria court was excited when the day began, and they got more so as it became clear that a deal was at hand. The judge hearing the case, Bernard Ngoepe, twice postponed the hearings - first for a few hours, and then until the following day. He did so at the request of lawyers for the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers' Association, the group of 39 drugmakers who have sued the South African government to keep it from implementing a law allowing the production and importation of cheaper generic versions of the companies' patented anti-AIDS drugs.

Lawyers for both sides say talks are still continuing on a settlement. Neither side would give details of what kind of compromise they might agree to.

South African Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang also would not comment on the deal, but she told reporters she remains confident that the government's case is strong enough to win.

"We would not have come here in the first instance if we did not think our case was legitimate," she said.

The only indication as to how far along the talks are came from AIDS activists connected to the case, who indicated that there are only a few small matters left to work out, including an agreement on legal fees.

Now, everyone just wants to know what kind of deal it is. It is not clear whether the government has agreed to make some kind of concessions to the drug companies, or whether the manufacturers are simply abandoning their case. AIDS activists from the Treatment Action Campaign - which is not party to the lawsuit but has filed a "friend of the court" brief on behalf of the government - said they will accept only a total withdrawal of the charges.

TAC leader Zakkie Achmat says he is confident that South Africa will win, and the companies will withdraw their case. He says the pharmaceutical companies' unity is crumbling along with their case, which has been a public relations disaster for them.

"There is absolutely no question that the world's biggest pharmaceutical companies have taken on the wrong issue, at the wrong time, with the wrong people," he said.

Mr. Achmet says a split appears to have emerged among the drug-makers. As evidence he pointed out that two different legal teams showed up to represent the companies, including one just recently named to represent the larger firms.