“For too long we have allowed our science to remain within the walls of academic institutions,” he said in the opening keynote address of a conference hosted at the Kennedy School of Government.
Achmat expressed frustration with the American patent system. He acknowledged Harvard’s “special place” in work on AIDS, but he argued it should license its intellectual property more widely. He urged the audience to “appeal to [university administrators’] good conscience; I believe they have it.”
As he took the podium, Achmat removed his jacket to reveal his trademark, a black t-shirt with the words “HIV POSITIVE.” His speech to the crowd of more than 150 was lively and humorous, referring frankly to his own HIV-positive condition and identity as a gay man.
Achmat is the chair and founder of the Treatment Action Campaign, an HIV activism organization in South Africa. From 1998 to 2003, he stopped taking his antriretroviral drugs in protest against the drugs’ limited availability in South Africa.
Achmat described AIDS as “the most important challenge for leadership in the twenty-first century.” He criticized the “AIDS denialism” of the South African government and accused Clinton and Gore of being swayed by drug companies.
A “practical morality” in dealing with the issue, he argued, was critical.
Any agenda to address AIDS, he said, would have to protect society’s “most vulnerable and marginalized members” such as young African women and be based on sound science.
Achmat encouraged Harvard student activists to contribute to AIDS treatment at a Friday morning breakfast with members of the Harvard AIDS Coalition. He also offered to publicly support the undergraduates’ efforts to secure greater public access to Harvard’s HIV research.
“It was good to have him here to learn about what steps we would take,” said Lisette N. Enumah ’08.
Achmat said he was impressed by the efforts of Harvard students in the AIDS fight.
“What strikes me is the willingness of people to learn and to engage,” he said. “To engage and to show solidarity is a very important thing.”
Achmat also shared his views on the history of HIV in South Africa. He attributed the Mbeki government’s failure to manage the AIDS crisis to its “denialist” attitude and to “the enormous power of drug companies” over public policy.
Achmat said that in coming to Harvard, he was fulfilling a promise he had made which a heart attack in 2004 had stopped him from carrying out. This is his last stop on a tour of the country that has included Duke and the University of Chicago, and Achmat said he had no plans to return to the United States.
Achmat’s speech at the Forum was the opening keynote in the International Development Conference this weekend, a student-run event now in its twelfth year.