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The BBC's Ben Brown
"Top drugs companies are slashing prices for the developing world"
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Friday, 12 May, 2000, 14:15 GMT 15:15 UK
Aids initiative 'no magic cure'
Aids victim
Most African Aids sufferers cannot afford treatment
The decision by five major pharmaceutical companies to slash the prices of anti-Aids drugs in developing countries has received a cautious welcome.

Some experts are warning that its impact on the epidemic may be very limited.

About 34 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are infected with the Aids virus, and more than 11 million have died of the disease, representing 83% of total HIV/Aids-related deaths worldwide.

aids orphans
The disease is creating millions of orphans

In South Africa, where an estimated 10% of the population is infected with HIV, experts say there remains an urgent need to boost public awareness and prevention of the disease.

American officials say they will no longer automatically seek to stop African countries from licensing or developing generic forms of drugs patented by American pharmaceutical companies.

Cost still too high

Dr Harm Pretorius, Deputy Director-General at the South African Department of Health, told the BBC that any initiative to cut the cost of treatment was welcome.

But even with a 70-80% cut in the price of anti-Aids drugs, most Aids patients in sub-Saharan Africa would still not be able to afford the treatment, he said.

In some cases, daily treatments will come down from more than $16 a day to just two dollars. But many people in sub-Saharan Africa have to subsist on less than $2 a day.

And according to Chris Lovelace, a senior World Bank official, only 3% of those who are HIV positive in sub-Saharan Africa go into clinics, because Aids is still a taboo subject.

Improving health services

The head of the World Health Organisation, Ms Gro Harlem Brundtland, told the BBC that the deal with the five major drugs companies would leave individual countries to decide how best to provide cheaper Aids treatments.

But she stressed the need for "a much greater effort to improve health services" in developing countries. Without that, patients would not have access to the anti-Aids drugs.

She described the new initiative as "a call for action by governments, civil society and donor countries".

Bill Clinton
US regards Aids as a threat to national security

The companies involved are: Germany's Boehringer Ingelheim, Roche of Switzerland, Glaxo Wellcome in Britain and US firms Bristol-Myers Squibb and Merck and Co.

On Wednesday, US President Bill Clinton issued an executive order to make the procurement of cheaper anti-Aids drugs and technology more accessible and affordable.

The move followed a recent American declaration that Aids was a national security threat to the US.

"Given the devastating impact of Aids, the US will not require or negotiate restrictive rules in the intellectual property rights area," US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky said.

The South African government has been battling with multinational drugs companies over its approach to patent recognition and its plans to import cheaper, generic versions of the drugs.


Some industry analysts say the companies could generate significant sales of the drugs in developing countries, boosting their revenues.

But there have been voices of dissent.

"We recognise that Aids is a major problem, but weakening intellectual property rights is not the solution," said Alan Holmer, president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

Washington has been under great pressure from anti-Aids activists, who argued that desperately-needed drugs which could delay the onset of the disease were being denied to the poorest countries.

Southern African countries and the United States have agreed to step up programmes to combat the epidemic.

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See also:

06 May 00 | Africa
South Africa tackles Aids
01 May 00 | Americas
US: Aids is security threat
12 May 99 | Aids
Aids Africa's top killer
23 Nov 99 | Health
HIV hits 50 million
18 Sep 99 | Africa
Aids drug trade dispute ends
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