Glaxo Fight over AIDS Drug in Ghana the ‘Latest Skirmish’ in a ‘Contentious’ War
Amidst a "wrenching" international debate over how to supply African nations with expensive antiretroviral drugs, pharmaceutical giant Glaxo Wellcome has ignited a "new controversy" by attempting to block the availability of generic versions of its "top-selling" medicine Combivir in Ghana, the Wall Street Journal reports. In letters to Healthcare Ltd., a drug distributor in Ghana, and Indian generic drug manufacturer Cipla Ltd., Glaxo called sales of generic versions of Combivir in the African nation "illegal" and a violation of company patents. Cipla ceased selling the generic drug in Ghana after receiving the letter, but officials at the African Regional Industrial Property Organization, the group that issued Glaxo's patents on Combivir, deemed the patents "invalid" in Ghana and said that they "don't apply." Calling Glaxo's efforts "wrong," Christopher Kiige, head patent examiner at ARIPO, said, "If (Glaxo officials) went to court, they would lose." A Glaxo spokesperson disagreed but declined to provide any legal documentation to support the company's stance. "Glaxo has called out the dogs," Toby Kasper, an activist with Doctors Without Borders, said, adding that the incident "goes a long way to explaining why there is so much skepticism in the developing world towards the negotiations" with drug companies.
Let's Make a Deal
The recent "clash" between Glaxo and Cipla in Ghana marks only the "latest skirmish" over one of the most "contentious" issues in sub-Saharan Africa, a dispute that remains largely unresolved. During the past year, under "intense pressure," five major drug firms -- including Glaxo, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., Merck & Co., Boehringer Ingelheim and Roche -- offered to sell HIV drugs to African nations at a discounted price, fearing that the nations would turn to companies peddling generic versions of their medicines, Wall Street Journal reports. Only Senegal and Uganda (see story #4) have accepted the deal, and several nations, like Ghana, have already started to "explore the option" of generics, prompting pharmaceutical companies to cry foul. Arguing that the shift to generic products violates patents and international intellectual property agreements, drug firms contend that without such protections, they will have "no incentive" to invest the hundreds of millions of dollars required to bring new products to the market. "The companies are sensitive about a pattern starting to develop where countries use generics," AlphaVax Inc. CEO Peter Young said. For Glaxo, Combivir has become "increasingly valuable" with total worldwide sales of the antiretroviral and its two component drugs, AZT and 3TC, expected to top $1.1 billion this year, up from $775 million in 1997, according to IMS Health. However, public health officials and AIDS activists have advised African nations to purchase generic medicines -- regardless of whether they would violate patent protections.
Gunning for Cipla?
According to some industry analysts, Glaxo may have "moved so aggressively" in Ghana to halt Cipla because it is one of the world's major manufacturers of generic drugs with the "stature" and "ability" to market its products throughout Africa. Glaxo denied the allegation, arguing that the company only hopes to "protect patents in a routine fashion" (Schoofs, Wall Street Journal, 12/1).