Cautious response to drug offer

An announcement by the five pharmaceutical giants that they are prepared to reduce the price of key drugs used to treat people living with HIV/AIDS, has been met with scepticism.

UNAIDS announced on Thursday that a “new public/private sector effort” would see a dramatic reduction of HIV/AIDS drugs by 85 to 90 percent.

“The concept is a good one, however, what it missing are concrete commitments from drug companies, national governments or other international funders,” said Dr Bernard Pécoul of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

“The fact that a serious discussion has begun among drug companies on dramatically reducing the price of Aids drugs is a victory, but a small one, much like an elephant giving birth to a mouse,” Pécoul said.

South African Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Nkosazana Zuma said any discount would be good but questioned the multinationals’ motives.

Zuma, SA’€™s former health minister, blasted the multinational pharmaceutical firms and some of the rich countries where they operate, saying both sought “to reap very high profits from poor, developing countries, up to a point where people are actually denied life-saving drugs”.

“When somebody says ‘€˜I’€™m deducting 50 percent of the price’€™, what does that mean? Are we starting from 1 000 dollars or are we starting from 50 dollars?

“I wouldn’t go celebrating,” she added. “You have to have a fuller picture before you can know what this means.”

MSF said the agreement also did nothing to stimulate countries’€™ rights to produce or import inexpensive quality drugs, an important part of the long-term solution to improving access to essential medicines.

“The net effect of implementing this type of program may be to further consolidate the AIDS-drug market in the hands of a small number of multinational drug companies. It will likely discourage the growth of manufacturing capacity in developing countries,” MSF said in a statement.

MSF encouraged UNAIDS to explore more widespread use of generic competition, a proven sustainable solution.

“The example of Brazil is poignant. Through the use of locally produced generic drugs, by the end of the year Brazil will be able to offer combination retroviral therapy to its citizens at approximately US$ 1 000 per year compared a global price of $10 000-15 000.

“Political commitment plus high quality local production has already led to a dramatic increase in Brazilians’€™ access to Aids drugs.

“In sharp contrast to this, an existing access initiative designed in close consultation with the drug industry and managed by UNAIDS has led to minimal price reductions,” MSF said.

UNAIDS announced in Geneva on Thursday that the pharmaceutical companies involved – Boehringer Ingelheim, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Glaxo Wellcome, Merck & Co., Inc., and F. Hoffmann-La Roche – had indicated their willingness to find ways to broaden access to care and treatment.

The companies are offering, individually, to improve significantly access to, and availability of, a range of medicines.

UNAIDS said constructive discussions had begun among the five companies and the United Nations organizations to explore practical and specific ways of working together more closely to make HIV/AIDS care and treatment available and affordable to significantly greater numbers of people in need in developing countries.

Glaxo Wellcome, manufacturers of AZT, said they were finding ways to broaden access while ensuring rational, affordable, safe and effective use of drugs for HIV/AIDS-related illnesses.

Glaxo Wellcome’s new initiatives included the following:-

* Within UN supported and nationally led HIV prevention and care programmes, the company was now extending its programme of preferential pricing to include Retrovir (zidovudine/AZT), Epivir (lamivudine/3TC) and Combivir (the fixed dose combination of zidovudine and lamivudine). The price of a double combination would be around US$2 per day.  

* The company was providing additional support for the existing UN-led programme to reduce Mother-to-Child Transmission of HIV in 25 developing countries, including an extended free start-up supply of 30,000 treatment courses (2.5 million tablets) of Retrovir, before the programme moved to drug procurement at the preferential price. – Health-e News Service

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