As Brazil Produces Generic HIV Drugs for Free Distribution, AIDS No Longer a ‘Threat’
The Brazilian government has said that HIV/AIDS, once the nation's leading cause of death in women and the second leading cause of death in men, is no longer the "threat" it once was due to a program that offers free HIV drugs. Brazil's government, which authorized state laboratories to produce any drug patented before 1997, effectively lowered the cost of antiretroviral treatment to about $4,500 dollars a year per patient, the Christian Science Monitor reports. Before generic production began, the treatment cost about $12,000 annually. At the new cost, Brazil can afford to distribute the drugs to the estimated 90,000 HIV-positive Brazilians "free of charge." Officials say that under this "controversial" program, which became possible after a 1997 drug patent law was passed that made pre-1997 registered patents public property, the free drug cocktails have kept 146,000 patients out of the nation's hospitals and saved the country $472 million. In addition, government spending on domestically produced medicines has dropped 72% since the program's implementation. Brazil produces eight generic HIV medications, with the remaining four being produced privately. Since generic drug production began, prices of privately produced drugs have dropped 9%. However, the government is "warning" the private firms that if the prices are not further lowered, a "rarely used constitutional provision" will be invoked to break the patents to allow generic production.
Other countries are now examining the Brazilian program to see if similar "successes" can be duplicated. To help other nations, Brazil plans to provide them with the technology to produce generic HIV drugs for free, if the medications will be distributed at no cost. India and China have already expressed interest in this offer. In addition, Brazil is attempting to organize a system of collective bargaining whereby countries could lobby pharmaceutical companies jointly for discounted prices. At an annual UNAIDS conference, Brazil sought WHO sponsorship of a Web site that would list drug prices for each country. The idea was rejected, but Brazil says it will post the information on its own Web site. Pedro Chequer, UNAIDS program coordinator for South America's Southern Cone, said, "The simplistic argument that treating AIDS is expensive is no longer convincing. Offering treatment is a question of morals and ethics, but we have to emphasize the economic side of things and change the focus. In Brazil, the cost of the investment is economically positive."
Drug Producers Critical of Program
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America has said that Brazil's program is "effectively stealing" the patents and profits of the drugs, as well as breaking international property laws. By producing the generic drugs, the organization said, Brazil is threatening future investment in the country and "could slow development of new drugs." Local manufacturers are concerned as well, especially if Brazil begins to produce the four drugs that remain patent protected. Irapuan Oliveira, with Abbott Laboratories of Brazil, which produces Ritonavir, said that government produced drugs may be "inferior" and do "more harm than good for the patient" (Downie, Christian Science Monitor, 12/6).