Magazine article Newsweek International

An AIDS Drug-Price War

Magazine article Newsweek International

An AIDS Drug-Price War

Article excerpt

People infected with the HIV virus can stay alive indefinitely, but only if they can afford drug treatments that cost $10,000 to $15,000 a year in the United States. The big pharmaceutical companies that make the drugs say these steep prices are necessary; otherwise they would have no incentive to pony up hundreds of millions of dollars for research and development. What happens, though, when whole continents full of people are too poor even to contemplate paying the price?

Government officials, humanitarians and business executives have batted this question around for years, but last week Yusuf Hamied came up with an unequivocal answer. The chairman of Bombay pharmaceutical firm Cipla announced that the company would provide AIDS cocktails to be distributed through Medecins sans Frontieres, the nonprofit health organization, for a mere $350 a year for each patient. Cipla stipulates only that MSF administer the drugs free of charge. "We want to provide these drugs at an economical and affordable price to the very needy," says Hamied. "I am confident that Cipla will be able to supply any amount of drugs that [MSF] may need."

Hamied's surprise announcement may provide a fillip to an ad hoc and rather haphazard campaign to get drugs more cheaply to AIDS patients in defiance of the leading drug companies. Brazil got things going in 1997 when it passed legislation protecting patent holders but reserving the right to break patents in a health emergency. In January, U.S. trade officials complained to the World Trade Organization. The law, they worry, may set a precedent that erodes patent protections in other countries as well. "This is an unfair trade practice," says a U.S. official. The WTO convened a special panel to consider the issue. Brazil's health minister, Jose Serra, replied last week by threatening to usurp patents of two important AIDS drugs unless the prices come down fast. …

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