MIT Student Collects Unused AIDS Drugs from a Network of Pharmacies for Distribution in Haiti
The Wall Street Journal today profiles MIT student Sanjay Basu, who has developed a network of pharmacies that donate unused and sometimes expired AIDS drugs to be distributed at a Haitian clinic. Over the past year, Basu, whose project is funded in part by MIT and in part by his personal finances, has facilitated AIDS drug donations -- 10,000 pills so far -- from 26 pharmacies in 18 states. Basu sends the drugs he receives from the pharmacies to the Harvard-affiliated Partners in Health organization, which then sends the drugs to the clinic in Haiti. Re-dispensation of the drugs, returned to the pharmacies by patients or patients' families because of side effects, drug resistance and sometimes death, is technically illegal, as U.S. law requires returned pills to be destroyed for safety and liability reasons. This practice, however, causes "millions of doses" of AIDS drugs to be discarded each year, according to physicians and pharmacy organizations. "It's such a terrible waste," St. Francis Memorial Hospital pharmacist Michael Sillman, one of the "few pharmacists" who "ignore[s] the law," said. The FDA's Prescription Drug Marketing Act also prohibits the dispensation of drugs by an unlicensed person, such as Basu. "[L]egality is less of a concern for us than patients' lives, and pushing the line on legality might just be the type of thing we'd want to do," Basu said. According to Grant Carrow, director of the drug control program at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, certain international donations of unopened, unexpired and sealed drugs are legal with state approval. Other organizations have collected unused medications throughout the United States to be sent to clinics in the developing world "for years." Aid for AIDS executive director Jesus Aguais estimated that his project has provided antiretroviral medications to 400 patients in Guatemala but said that he has "tapped into just a fraction of the unused AIDS drugs available." Basu is currently recruiting additional undergraduate students to become involved in the drug distribution project, which he hopes to expand to Tanzania. "In a more rational world, there would be no need for this sort of effort," Paul Farmer, a doctor at Partners in Health, said, adding, "Unfortunately, we're two decades into this terrible epidemic ... and we still have to fight for access to these meds. So efforts like Sanjay's are critical" (Zimmerman, Wall Street Journal, 3/14).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.