AIDS-drugs hopes dashed

Sunday Times of South Africa - May 21, 2000
by Laurice Taitz

Reports that major pharmaceutical companies have slashed prices by 85% for poorer countries untrue.

South Africans with AIDS received a slap in the face this week when it emerged that that the much-vaunted offer of cut-rate medicines was not true.

Hopes had been raised after reports said that African countries had been offered an 80 percent cut in the price of AIDS drugs. It was widely reported this week that the United Nations and pharmaceutical companies had reached a breakthrough agreement to lower drug prices in an effort to fight the epidemic in poorer countries.

But now it has emerged that the major manufacturers have made no decision on pricing and had not made the offer.

The only offer was from a UK manufacturer, Glaxo-Wellcome, who made a condition offer the SOUTH Africa and other African countries had not been offered an "80 percent cut" in the price of AIDS drugs as was widely reported this week, according to a spokesman forUNAIDS, the joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.

Speaking from Geneva, press officer Dominique de Santis said the only public announcement made on price came from UK pharmaceutical company Glaxo Wellcome who offered an 85% reduction in the price of one of its drugs. Even that only applied to its use within UN-supported and nationally led HIV prevention and care programmes.

This was confirmed by the five multinational drug companies - Boehringer Ingelheim, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Glaxo Wellcome, Merck and Hoffman-La Roche -- who took part inthe discussions with UNAIDS last week.

Vicki Ehrich, Director of Corporate Affairs at Glaxo Wellcome SA said: "The worst thing is that it has been reported that drug prices have been slashed. There is no way that drug companies can collude on pricing levels. It is illegal. "The blanket 80% cut in drug prices is just misreporting. "

But spokesmen for the UN and the drug companies were unanimous that the meeting had only:

Mirryena Deeb, chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers' Association of South Africa said this agreement meant not all developing countries would receive the same level of assistance from the partnership.

Meanwhile, developing countries have countered with their own initiative at a meeting this week of another UN body, the World Health Assembly - attended by health ministers from 191 countries.

Brazil, supported by Zimbabwe, stunned pharmaceutical companies by demanding that:

The World Health Organisation set up a database of where the cheapest anti-AIDS drugs were available to enable poor countries to buy drugs at the lowest price possible on the global market;

Poorer countries be allowed, despite World Trade Organisation restrictions, to bypass drug manufacturers and import generic versions of the drugs at the lowest prices.

The move was also supported by South Africa's Minister of Health, Dr Manto Tshabalala Msimang.

Zimbabwe's deputy High Commissioner to South Africa, Danson Mudekunye said on Friday:

"We are more in favour of partnerships between pharmaceutical companies and consumer countries that would result in franchises where the drugs would be produced locally. Instead of being manufactured in the US or Europe and shipped here at great cost they should be manufactured in Africa."


ACT UP Philadelphia
19 May 2000

ACT UP Applauds Poor Countries' Stand Against Drug Company Interests and US/EU Opposition Limited Victory Emerges from World Health Assembly

(20 May 2000: Geneva) Delegations from Zimbabwe, Swaziland and other developing nations to the 53rd World Health Assembly withstood an intense pressure campaign from wealthy nations over proposals that would lead to improved, sustainable access to generic versions of AIDS medicines. A coalition of developing countries joined in support during the intense negotiations, mobilizing against efforts of the US and EU member delegations to weaken African amendments to the World Health Organizationís HIV/AIDS policy directive.

"The fierce insistence by African delegations that access to affordable medication take priority over the interest of drug companies was a wake-up call to the industry-besotted US delegation," said Asia Russell of ACT UP. "In spite of strong opposition, developing nations successfully changed the mandate of the WHO on the crucial issue of affordable medications for HIV."

The coordinated campaign by developing nations come on the heels of high profile announcements from industry and from US government regarding HIV and medication access. On 10 May President Clinton issued an Executive Order following ACT UP's request at a 12 April meeting with US trade, HHS, and Securiy Council officials. The Order announced an end to US opposition to WTO-compliant measures taken by sub Saharan African countries to locally manufacture or import generic versions of expensive life-saving medicines. Additionally, five of the world's largest drug companies and UNAIDS announced an offer of limited and conditional price reductions to poor nations last week. This initiative did not include the consultation of recipient countries.

In response to questions about the drug company proposal during a 19 May press conference, the Health Ministers of Swaziland and Mozambique insisted that only tactics such as compulsory licensing and parallel importing would result in sustained supplies of life-extending medications. The ministers reported that their national public health policies could not be dependent on unpredictable bargains with multinational pharmaceutical companies.

"While price reductions are a positive step, the recent drug company announcement is also a public relations move. Industry is busy planting news stories in the Financial Times and other outlets claiming that pricing is no longer the problem, and that African nations are unwilling or too corrupt or incompetent to take advantage of this offer," said Abdul Hakim of ACT UP. "But at this yearís World Health Assembly, PhRMA's fear moved closer to reality: empowered developing nations demanded and won unfettered rights to pursue creating autonomous, sustainable programs for affordable medication access."

Brazil proposed an amendment that would create an accessible database of worldwide drug prices, providing crucial data for cash-strapped countries. The US led and won the fight to weaken the amendment. "This common-sense tool would have offered poor countries significant buying power, but was unacceptable to the multi-national pharmaceutical interests crawling the halls at the Assembly," said ACT UP's Paul Davis. "A simple database, updated regularly, would have exposed shocking price differences between patented and generic AIDS drugs. Big pharma told the countries they own to jump. And the US jumped very high, destroying the Brazil amendment. In many countries with generic competition, the price of patented drugs are as much as 95% higher than the price of generic medicines.

A bloc of wealthy nations from Sweden to US, held the resolution in protracted debate, singling out language in Swazilandís proposal that advocated parallel importing--a strategy legal under WTO agreements--which permits countries to shop on the global market for the best drug price. The move was seen as a contradiction of President Clintonís Executive Order of last week. However, when the drafting group completed its work, a compromise acceptable to the developing countries was reached. "Strength and solidarity on the part of developing nations forced the countries of the North to back down. The actions of the U.S. representatives caused some delegates to question the sincerity of the Clinton order," reported SharonAnn Lynch of ACT UP.

ACT UP chapters from Philadelphia and Paris worked in partnership with public health advocacy groups Medicins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) and Health Action International during the Assembly, drawing attention to the need for WHO to take leadership in poor countries, struggle for access to affordable, life extending medication.

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Contact: Paul Davis or Asia Russell
tel +001 215 731 1844 * page +001 215 212 9050
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