Tue, Jul 13, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Generic drugs attacked at AIDS forum

'HYPE' UNDER FIRE A group headed by a health advisor to the US president is targeting companies that make cheap drugs for AIDS victims in poor countries

AFP , BANGKOK

An AIDS educator called ``Aspino'' passes out prevention literature as Thais in traditional dress prepare for a show at the 15th AIDS Conference in Bangkok yesterday.

PHOTO: AP

A little-known US group headed by an advisor to US President George W. Bush attacked copycat drug makers at the world AIDS forum yesterday, accusing them of exaggerating claims about the costs, safety and effectiveness of their products.

The broadside, aimed at the role of cheap "generic" drugs that are now playing a central role in the AIDS war, was delivered in a full-page advertisement in the Bangkok Post as the International AIDS Conference here began its first day of work.

"Beware of the hype," the ad was headlined. "HIV patients worldwide deserve safe, effective and abundant treatment options -- not false hope and false medicine."

Generic drugs manufacturers copy patented antiretroviral treatments and sell them at prices below those set by the wealthy pharmaceutical giants.

AIDS activists say these firms have helped drive down the cost of an annual regimen of antiretrovirals in developing countries from between US$10,000 and US$12,000 per person two years ago to several hundred US dollars, or even lower, today.

The ad was placed by a group called the AIDS Responsibility Project.

Its Web site says the organization was set up last year with the mission to "educate key policy makers and the general public to the unique needs of traditionally undeserved HIV/AIDS-affected populations."

Its founder and head is identified as Abner Mason, a former policy advisor to the Massachusetts state government. He is a member of the 35-person advisory council on HIV/AIDS to the White House.

"Rather than healthcare by press release, this conference should serve as an occasion to promote the principles of democratic governments; economic freedoms; infrastructure development; safe, approved and effective medicines and property rights," the ad said.

It took specific aim at the Indian generic maker Cipla, claiming the firm had attached "strict conditions" to a promise it had made to the Clinton Foundation that it would provide antiretrovirals for just US$140 a year.

And, it noted, the World Health Organization on May 27 had delisted two Cipla AIDS drugs because they were not "bioequivalent" -- in other words, they did not work in the same way as patented drugs which had been licensed after exhaustive tests for safety and effectiveness.

The pandemic in 23 years has claimed more than 20 million lives and threatens 38 million more who are living with HIV.

European and US pharmaceutical companies have slashed the prices of patented drugs, partly out of goodwill and lobbying pressure but also because of competition from generics, which are principally manufactured in India, Thailand and Brazil.

This has caused the global market for HIV drugs to develop into two tiers: cheap drugs in developing countries and expensive ones in developed nations.

The pharmaceutical giants fought for many years against these rivals, arguing that copied drugs would leak into rich markets and hurt their profits, thus destroying the financial incentive to look for new drugs.

Thailand's health ministry came close to a showdown with US pharmaceutical corporations after it began selling its own locally produced antiretroviral drug in April last year at less than US$1 a day.

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