Cheaper drugs for Aids patients

Gilead Sciences Inc. will allow some of its Aids drugs to be made by generic manufacturers, potentially increasing their availability in poor countries, particularly in Africa, officials said.

In the first deal of its kind, the pharmaceutical company has agreed to allow four of its Aids drugs to be made by generic drug companies at a cheaper cost, in return for a small proportion of the royalties, United Nations health officials said. Gilead is one of the world's biggest producers of Aids drugs.

Most of the 33 million people worldwide who have HIV, the virus that causes Aids, live in Africa. One of the drugs will also be used to treat people with hepatitis.

The deal was negotiated by the Medicines Patent Pool, part of a UN led partnership that raises money for Aids, tuberculosis and malaria by things like taxing airplane tickets. Among the partnership's 29 member countries, only Chile, France, Korea, Mali and Niger are actually implementing the airline tax.

Manufacturing and distribution of these drugs

The US National Institutes of Health allowed one of its patented drugs to be manufactured generically via the same group, but this is the first deal with a private company.

"We will continue to work with Gilead and others to expand access to all people living with HIV in developing countries," said Ellen’t Hoen, executive director of the Medicines Patent Pool. Several other pharmaceutical companies, including F. Hoffman-La Roche, Sequoia Pharmaceuticals and ViiV Healthcare, a joint venture between GlaxoSmithKline PLC and Pfizer Inc., are in talks with the group.

Gilead will receive from 3% to 5% royalties on its four drugs, which will be supplied to about 100 countries.

Until now, its drugs have been mainly sold in rich countries, and profits from the new deal are expected to be a tiny fraction of those Gilead gets from the West.

Squabbles in drug deal

Typically, patients in poor countries have to wait for years until the patents expire on new drugs before they can be made more cheaply by generic companies.

But some experts questioned whether the deal went far enough and pointed out it specifically excludes manufacturers in Thailand and Brazil, which both produce large amounts of generic drugs.

"This agreement is an improvement over what other big pharmacy companies are doing to ensure access to their patented Aids medicines in developing countries," said Michelle Childs, a director at Doctors Without Borders' campaign for access to essential medicines. Still, she warned caution was necessary and that the new deal "should not become the template for future agreements".

Other major drug makers including Johnson and Johnson, Abbott Laboratories and Merck & Co. have so far declined to formally negotiate with the UN led group.

(Sapa, July 2011)

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