U.S. and African officials meet next week (13-17 January) in Mauritius for a conference on expanding U.S.-African trade. AIDS activists say the meeting will be meaningless without increased U.S. financial support to fight a disease devastating African economies.

The Mauritius gathering will discuss implementation of a U.S. law called the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, passed during the Clinton presidency in 2000 to open U.S. markets to certain African goods.

The law is credited with helping boost sub-Saharan African exports to the United States by more than 10 percent last year.

But AIDS activists like Asia Russell of the U.S. advocacy group Health GAP say the Bush administration is hurting African economies at the same time by not doing more to combat HIV. "The greatest barrier to the economic livelihood of Africa is the continent's AIDS pandemic, and any provision of so-called free trade won't help the dead not the 20 million dead from AIDS already on the continent, nor the 30 million infected with no access to affordable medicines that could extend their lives," she says.

The World Health Organization estimates that of these millions of HIV patients, only 300,000 get the drugs that halt the virus'replication. AIDS activists say the United States has undermined efforts to make cheaper HIV medicines available in poor countries in an effort to protect patent rights of large pharmaceutical companies.

Washington helped formulate a 2001 World Trade Organization compromise in Doha, Qatar that permits developing countries to produce low-cost copies of patented drugs when public health emergencies warrant.

But subsequent talks have failed over the question of how poor countries without drug industries can import generic drugs from those than can make them. The United States fears the original agreement will be abused by nations that want to export copies of drugs for non-emergency conditions.

However, Asia Russell of Health GAP accuses Bush administration trade negotiators of impeding the talks by insisting on too strict an interpretation of the 2001 Doha agreement. "It was White House intransigence and pharmaceutical industry greed that killed all hope of reaching a solution within the timeline agreed to by WTO members just a year before," she says. "The White House is running roughshod over its historic commitment set out during the Doha ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization."

A December statement from U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick says Washington has worked intensively to find a solution that will provide life-saving drugs to those truly in need. While an agreement is sought, he pledges not to challenge any WTO member that breaks the organization's rules on drug export, and asks other members to join this moratorium.

AIDS activists also criticize the Bush administration for not supplying more money to the Global Fund, formed last year to collect and disperse money to countries with epidemic AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. The United States has pledged $500 million to the fund, but many international economists and public health and developmental experts say the fair U.S. share is five times more, or $2.5 billion.

In comparison to this need, one leading South African AIDS activist dismisses the benefits of the U.S. law promoting trade with Africa as puny. Zackie Achmat of the Treatment Action Campaign, insists that, in addition to spending more on AIDS, the United States should stop subsidizing farmers, which he says puts African labor at a disadvantage. "Where I live, in the last 18 months, more than 100,000 textile and clothing jobs have been lost, particularly because of trade restrictions. We would like to see fairer trade and most importantly the Bush administration leading the battle on HIV-AIDS," he says.

Asia Russell of Health GAP says she is heartened that the new majority Republican Party leader in the U.S. Senate is Bill Frist, a physician whom she says has shown an interest in making African AIDS a key U.S. policy issue.