AIDS drug makers to cut prices for the poor
By Elif Kaban
GENEVA, May 11 (Reuters) - Five top pharmaceutical firms have agreed to cut prices of AIDS drugs for the developing world in a deal with the United Nations that could save millions of lives in Africa, officials said on Thursday.
The U.N. said prices could come down in a matter of months as a result of its negotiations with U.S. Merck & Co Inc. and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co, British Glaxo-Wellcome PLC, German Boehringer Ingelheim and Roche Holding AG of Switzerland.
The deal means millions in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world could have use of life-saving but now very costly drugs that revolutionised treatment in the West, David Nabarro, the World Health Organisation's executive director, said.
"This is an amazing new prospect and dramatic development for developing countries with thousands or millions of people affected by HIV," said Nabarro, the second highest-ranking official of the U.N. health agency.
LOOKING FOR MASSIVE PRICE CUTS
"The cost of the treatment is currently more than 10 thousand dollars a year. We are really looking for pretty massive eductions in terms of accessibility to people in poor countries," he told Reuters.
AIDS is now the leading killer in sub-Saharan Africa, where 23.3 million people have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The region has one-tenth of the world population but two-thirds of its HIV-positive cases, the United Nations says.
In some countries, as many as one in every four people are thought to carry the HIV virus, many below the age of 25.
Swiss Roche, one of the drug companies involved, said it had agreed to slash prices of AIDS drugs for the developing world.
"Under the United Nations initiative, we have agreed to offer Roche AIDS drugs cheaper and also provide services and logistics support to developing countries," spokeswoman Jacqueline Wallach told Reuters.
Wallach added: "Exactly by how much the prices will be reduced and by when is subject to negotiations."
"The important thing is we have this agreement in place. This is the first and most important step," she said.
Wallach said this was the first time Roche was taking part in a joint initiative to combat AIDS together with other pharmaceutical companies, governments as well as U.N. agencies.
Nabarro said negotiations with the firms began last month and may be concluded "in weeks or months".
In the United States, Bristol-Myers Squibb said in a statement it would expand access to its antiretroviral drugs: Videx (R)(didanasine) and Zerit (R)(stavudine) for the treatment of HIV/AIDS; MEGACE (R)(megestrol acetate) Oral Suspension for the treatment of AIDS-related cachexia; and oral Fungizone (R)(Amphoterecin B) for the treatment of fungal infections.
Asked how the new pricing mechanisms would work, Nabarro said: "Companies are saying they are prepared to negotiate with individual governments."
In a boost to the U.N. initiative, the U.S. administration on Wednesday promised that U.S. officials would not stand in the way of countries seeking to obtain less costly AIDS medication for their poorest citizens as long as the measures complied with international trade rules.
The executive order by President Bill Clinton said the United States is retreating from a controversial policy which U.S. drug makers had pushed, in order to help make cheaper AIDS drugs available to millions of patients in sub-Saharan Africa.
U.S. pharmaceutical companies had argued that countries' efforts to license local manufacturers to make generic copies of AIDS drugs violated the firms' patent protection and compromised future research. U.S. officials had threatened trade sanctions against countries that pursued such licences for patented drugs.
But U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky said that from now on, officials would take a softer stance, asking only that countries abide by the World Trade Organisation's agreement on intellectual property. That agreement gives countries more leeway to pursue less expensive medicines, she said.
AIDS activists in the United States and Europe have for years campaigned for medicines against the pandemic in the developing world, angry at policies that priced medicines beyond the reach of the poor.
The breakthrough drug-cost agreement also involves UNAIDS, the U.N. agency set up to combat AIDS, the U.N. Children's Fund, UNICEF, and the U.N. Population Fund, UNFPA.
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