Activists Criticize Pfizer’s South Africa HIV/AIDS Drug Program
While Pfizer officials defend their "seemingly generous" plan to give away the antifungal medication Diflucan to government clinics in South Africa, many AIDS advocates are criticizing the program, calling it a "very conditional gift," Forbes reports. Diflucan, with annual worldwide sales totaling $1 billion, is an antifungal medication used to treat infections in HIV/AIDS patients. Under the program, which Pfizer eventually plans to expand to 50 countries, Diflucan is donated "only through public-sector clinics." According to Forbes, this policy excludes a "large segment" of HIV-positive South Africans who are served by 2,500 private pharmacies. Pharmacy patients must pay the annual retail price of $3,600 for Diflucan to treat cryptococcal meningitis. Those who cannot afford to pay this sum "could turn to the public clinics," but those clinics are "already hugely overburdened and not equipped to handle private-sector patients," Forbes reports. Since the program was announced in the spring of 2000, only 4,000 South Africans have received Diflucan in 120 of the nation's "several thousand public clinics and hospitals," well below the company's projection of 50,000 recipients over two years. Progress has been slowed by the "red tape" that frequently accompanies government programs in South Africa -- the company had to meet with officials from each of the country's nine provinces, establish eligibility criteria for patients and "ensure that the drug wouldn't be diverted out of the country."
Should Pfizer Follow the Pack?
Activist groups such as Doctors Without Borders and Oxfam International "argue" that Pfizer should follow the lead of its competitors. In March, Merck lowered the price of its two HIV/AIDS drugs in 40 developing countries, making "no distinction between public and private markets," while Bristol-Myers Squibb began selling two of its HIV/AIDS drugs "below cost" and has allowed generics to be sold in sub-Saharan Africa. Activists would like Pfizer to charge between 20 cents and 40 cents for Diflucan -- the "approximate cost of a generic version [that] is barred in South Africa but sold elsewhere" -- and sell the drug through all the country's "normal outlets."
Henry McKinnell, Pfizer's "defiant" chair, takes exception to the criticism. "For God's sake, why are we being attacked for a program that's actually produced results?" he asked. Addressing the suggestion that the drug should be distributed more widely, he said the program is "aimed at getting Diflucan into the hands of indigent patients who are served by the government -- not the general population." He concluded: "We are doing more good for people than any other pharmaceutical. We should all be working together to get this horrible problem under control" (Machan, Forbes, 10/29).