U.N. Secretary-General Annan to Announce New Reduced-Cost AIDS Drug Campaign
In a private video conference meeting on Wednesday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and senior officials from the United Nations and the World Bank agreed to launch a new campaign to "push" pharmaceutical companies to lower the prices of AIDS drugs in developing countries and "convince wealthy nations to pony up the cost of treating the killer disease and its relentless spread," the Wall Street Journal reports. The meeting comes in advance of a "major" U.N. General Assembly summit in June that will focus on AIDS. Annan was responding to "dramatic recent developments," such as Indian generic drug manufacturer Cipla Ltd.'s offer to supply a triple-drug combination HIV therapy at an annual price of $600 per patient, a price "about 40%" less than the offer made by five pharmaceutical companies last May. Cipla's offer "revolutionizes the situation," according to Mark Malloch Brown, head of the U.N. Development Program, because officials believe they can use the offer to "pressur[e]" the big drug companies to "match or beat" Cipla's price. "We get signals ... that the companies are considering going considerably lower. I will be amazed if we don't see big shifts not only in prices, but also in the resources available to buy these drugs," David Nabarro, executive director in the office of World Health Organization Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland, said. UNAIDS contacted Cipla about its offer but was told the company "preferred to deal with individual countries." The pharmaceutical companies, however, say that price is not the "only barrier to providing medicine." GlaxoSmithKline's South Africa manager said that the company has yet to hear from the government about two separate offers it made last summer to sell the drug Combivir for $2 a day, an 80% discount. The health ministers of South Africa and several other sub-Saharan African nations have invited the five major drug companies to a meeting to discuss prices later this month. Intellectual property rights were a "major" topic at Wednesday's meeting, where officials debated "how exactly to handle offers to sell discounted drugs by manufacturers of generic drugs." The major drug companies say the generic makers are "pirates profiting off their research." Meeting participants voiced "concern" over how to protect intellectual property, although they agreed that "any use of generic drugs must fall within current patent law."
The Money Tree
As drug prices are expected to drop, the attention of the debate will "shift ... to pressuring wealthy nations to fund the drugs' cost," according to Malloch Brown. Many African nations have per capita health budgets of "as little as $10 per year," Dr. Peter Piot, UNAIDS director, said, excluding them from even Cipla's low price. He added that an additional $7 billion to $10 billion in funding is needed to combat the disease on a global scale. He plans to address funding issues today at a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. Italy is seeking to "convince" the member nations of the Group of Seven to establish an AIDS fund, and Great Britain recently announced its willingness to establish a similar fund (Phillips/Schoofs, Wall Street Journal, 3/2).