Cost of AIDS Drugs

By Mario RitterThis is Bob Doughty.And this is Sarah Long with SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, a VOA Special English program about recent developments in science. Today we tell about efforts to reduce the cost of drugs to treat the disease AIDS.

In Kenya, Father D'Agostino takes care of seventy children who have no parents at Nyumbani Orphange. The children are infected with H-I-V, the virus that causes AIDS. However, the drugs needed to treat these children are very costly. Kenyans spend an average of three dollars a year on health care. But one year of AIDS drug treatment for one patient costs more than ten-thousand dollars a year in many industrial countries.

Father D'Agostino has decided to buy AIDS-fighting drugs to treat the children from a company in India called Cipla. The company makes "generic" AIDS drugs. They are copies of AIDS medicines developed by large drug companies.

Last month, the Indian drug company offered developing nations a special price on generic versions of three drugs. These drugs when used together fight H-I-V. Cipla said it could sell developing nations an AIDS-drug treatment for about six-hundred dollars a year for each patient. The company said it could make the drugs even less costly in the future.Companies like Cipla can provide drugs that are much less costly than the same drugs developed and sold by large international drug companies.

However, the international drug companies that first developed the AIDS-drug treatments say companies like Cipla are violating their rights.

Governments give companies special rights to make and sell products that they invent. This special permission is called a patent. A patent prevents other companies from making the same drug for a number of years while the patent is in force.

Patents are important because they help companies recover the money they spent in developing new products. Drug companies say the cost of their research is so high that they must charge high prices to pay for their research.

((MUSIC BRIDGE))Earlier this month, a court case began in Pretoria, South Africa. The case will be important to the future of generic drugs. Thirty-nine major drug companies are attempting to stop a South African law on AIDS drug policy. The law permits South Africa's health minister to import generic copies of AIDS drugs.

The law also permits the health minister to limit patents of companies that make AIDS drugs. Drug makers complain that the law gives South Africa's health minister unfair power to avoid international patent laws.

The South African AIDS drug law is similar to a law in Brazil. The Brazilian law says that foreign drug companies must make their AIDS drugs in Brazil. The government may seize the patents of companies that do not obey the law.

The Brazilian government also takes part in the research and development of generic AIDS drugs. Brazil now produces an AIDS drug treatment for about three-thousand dollars a year for each patient. It says the cost of the drugs could be reduced to seven-hundred dollars or less.Drug companies have fought measures that restrict their patents on AIDS drugs. In Nineteen-Ninety-Eight, the American drug industry succeeded in getting American trade officials to take action. The United States made an official complaint against the Brazilian government to the World Trade Organization.

That same year, the United States placed trade restrictions on South Africa because of that country's AIDS drug law.

Brazil says that AIDS is a national emergency. It says World Trade Organization rules permit Brazil to take measures to make AIDS drugs less expensive. The W-T-O says countries can make copies of patented products in some situations, such as a national emergency.The World Trade Organization protects drug patents under the Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights rules. These rules are designed to protect the rights of all companies and individuals who invent or create a product to sell.

However, only members of the World Trade Organization must observe its trade rules. Developing nations that are not members may or may not have their own laws concerning patents. Each country outside the W-T-O is free to negotiate trade laws with foreign companies.

((MUSIC BRIDGE))The international aid group, Doctors Without Borders, has called on large drug companies to provide AIDS drugs at much lower prices. The organization has urged large drug-makers to lower their prices by ninety-five percent.

It has also called on the drug companies to release price information. And it has asked the companies to make it easier for developing countries to receive AIDS drugs.

Doctors Without Borders says that the Indian drug-maker Cipla and the Brazilian government have shown that AIDS drugs can be made for much less money.

Oxfam, an aid group based in Oxford, England, is also taking part in the effort to reduce the cost of AIDS drugs. Oxfam says it is working to turn public opinion against drug companies that do not lower their prices.Pressure on large drug companies to reduce their prices for AIDS drugs has already had an effect. Earlier this month, the large drug company Merck announced it would reduce the price of several AIDS drugs by as much as fifty percent. Another drug company, Pfizer, will provide one AIDS drug at no cost to South Africa.

And most recently, the drug company Bristol-Myers Squibb announced it would sell two AIDS drugs below production cost. The company also said it would not try to protect its patent for another AIDS drug. Yale University holds the patent for the drug. However, Bristol-Myers Squibb has an agreement with the university to sell the drug.

Another drug-maker recently has announced it will sell generic drugs at low prices. The Indian drug company Hetero says it will sell AIDS drugs in South Africa at prices lower than those offered by Cipla. The drugs will cost about three-hundred-fifty dollars for each patient for one year.Competition has caused all companies that make AIDS drugs to lower their prices. Reductions in the prices of some AIDS drugs have come quickly. Only a few months ago, international drug companies said they could not lower their prices. But competition from generic drug-makers forced large international companies to react.

Within one month, prices of many AIDS drugs have dropped by more than half. However, major drug companies remain prepared to protect their patents in South African courts.

((MUSIC BRIDGE))High prices are only one problem with AIDS treatment, however. Providing the drugs to the people who need them can be a complex process. Trade laws and patent laws are barriers to providing drugs at any price. Neither humanitarian aid organizations nor generic drug makers are able to give out large amounts of drugs to many different countries. Both groups need governments to help provide drugs to AIDS patients. But many governments are often unable to do so.

For example, South African President Thabo Mbeki until recently denied that H-I-V causes AIDS. President Mbeki also delayed a program designed to fight H-I-V in children of mothers infected with AIDS. The program did not begin until this month. Mr. Mbeki recently rejected calls by opposition parties to declare a national emergency in order to provide AIDS treatment for patients.Experts say the resources needed to fight AIDS must come from governments. Only governments can develop effective health care policies. For example, Brazil has a national health care program in place. Brazil says it has reduced AIDS deaths by fifty-percent. Brazil has even offered to share its technology with other countries. But experts say without established health care systems, drugs alone cannot solve the AIDS crisis.

This SCIENCE IN THE NEWS program was written by Mario Ritter. It was produced by George Grow. This is Bob Doughty.And this is Sarah Long. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.

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