Students ‘Pressuring’ University of Minnesota to Give Up Profits from AIDS Drug Ziagen
The University of Minnesota is reaping more than $10 million per year in royalties for Ziagen, an AIDS drug university researchers developed and licensed to pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, but a group of students is trying to pressure the school to give up its share of the profits and support the sale of the drug's generic version in Africa, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports. Ziagen, approved by the FDA in 1998 and used as part of a three-drug antiretroviral "cocktail" to fight AIDS, generated sales of $234 million in 2000, of which the university received 5%. Graduate student Amanda Swarr, who is spearheading the student effort to cut drug prices, said, "I think the university and Glaxo are both benefiting disproportionately from the high prices of this drug. We need to think less about profit and more about saving millions of human lives." Inspired by the recent student protests at Yale University that prompted Bristol-Myers Squibb to permit importation of cheaper versions of the AIDS drug stavudine in South Africa, Swarr and fellow activists are circulating petitions around campus asking the school to "use its influence with Glaxo" to end its participation in a lawsuit against South Africa. But the university maintains that it has "no control" over how Ziagen is sold, and that the "criticism is misguided." Robert Vince, a university pharmacy professor and one of the drug developers, said that all the money the school receives from drug sales are used for research purposes. "It's a good source of money to do a lot of good types of research, and if we didn't do these types of things, maybe these drugs wouldn't be available," he said. Although the university does not seek to impose price controls for Ziagen on Glaxo, Dr. Anne-Valerie Kaninda of Doctors Without Borders argued that "universities should definitely negotiate with the companies to which they license the drugs, and explain to them that this is a public health emergency. It will not undermine their profits. Most of their profits are made in the wealthy nations, anyway." GSK spokesperson Nancy Pekarek said that the company is trying to reduce prices on anti-HIV medication, but Ziagen is "more complicated" because it hasn't been approved in South Africa and bears a rare but potentially fatal hypersensitivity reaction side effect, which could pose problems if the drug was widely released. Swarr responded that the argument is "condescending" as it "assumes African nations don't have the know-how, somehow, to implement drug programs. I think that's not for the drug companies to decide" (Lerner, Minneapolis Star Tribune, 4/2).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.