Campaign for cheap drugs from Thailand

Pharmacist holding pills. (File Photo)
Written by Kerry Cullinan

“Very high” medicine prices have prompted HIV/AIDS activist organisation to mount “legal action” against [drug company] Pfizer, to bring generic medicine into the country from Thailand to help treat HIV positive people.

The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) has resolved to mount “legal action” to bring generic medicine into the country from Thailand to help treat HIV positive people who suffer from thrush.

Announcing the campaign at the international AIDS conference yesterday, the TAC’s Zackie Achmat said the intention was to “smash [drug company] Pfizer’s patent” which was keeping the price of the drug, Fluconazol, very high.  

Holding up a packet of the Thai generic medicine, Achmat said it would cost about R200 as opposed to about R4 000 for the patented version – the only one allowed to be sold in this country. Achmat said the TAC would campaign for the government to issue a compulsory license to allow the importation of the Thai generic.  

However, the health department’s director general, Ayanda Ntsaluba, said earlier in the week it was impossible for the government to allow the importation of generics until its legal dispute with the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers’ Association (PMA) was resolved.

Treating opportunistic infections, such as thrush and TB, have emerged as a priority for South Africa, along with preventing mothers from infecting their babies, treating sexually transmitted diseases and caring for those in an advanced stage of AIDS.

So said Professor William Makgoba at the conference yesterday, adding that   he had “every faith and confidence” that the government would “negotiate these dilemmas with success”.   Makoba, who heads the Medical Research Council, also expressed disappointment that after 20 years, HIV/AIDS research had failed to focus on men and boys, yet they continued to infect their partners and, in many ways, “the future of this epidemic is in their hands”.

The lack of attention being paid to men was comparable to contraception research, where “50 years after the female contraceptive pill, we still have no male equivalent,” said Makgoba.

Addressing the question of how vaccine research should be conducted in developing countries, Makgoba said potential participants often asked   whether they would be mere “guinea pigs” in vaccine trials, due to begin in Durban next year.

“Many ask what is in it for them, what happens if they should get   breakthrough HIV infections and whether they will have access to antiretrovirals,”said Makgoba.  

In contrast, he said, the “researcher gets the publications and the glory while the participant remains disempowered”.  

Meanwhile, Dr Margaret Liu, vice-president of the US-based Chiron Corporation’s Vaccines Research and Gene Therapy, said that if the world was to have a vaccine within seven years, industry, academics, advocacy groups, governments and economic bodies have to “work as one team and with a sense of emergency”.  

Lui appealed for the search for a vaccine to be free of political bias, and said that shortcuts would only “prolong the process”.    

“Our global battle against HIV is nothing less than a war, and just as in war where it is important to understand the enemy in order to outsmart it, we must understand HIV, what its structure is like and how it infects and causes disease in order to defeat it.”

However, the World Bank’s C Ainsworth revealed at an earlier session that drug companies were more interested in investing in developing   antiretroviral drugs than in vaccine research as “no company ever recaptures its investment completely”.

Many were reluctant as the developing countries had the highest HIV infection rate but the lowest ability to pay for a vaccine.  

She appealed to governments to give companies tax breaks for investing in vaccine research, as well as form public- private partnerships to promote the vaccine – widely accepted as the only hope for Africa to halt the AIDS pandemic. – Health-e News


About the author

Kerry Cullinan

Kerry Cullinan is the Managing Editor at Health-e News Service. Follow her on Twitter @kerrycullinan11