Indian drug maker Cipla asked for authority under existing law to supply South Africa with low-cost generic copies of patented AIDS medicines, without waiting for the Pretoria High Court to decide whether a new law is needed for permission to be granted.
Simultaneously Merck, the giant US research-based drug company, said it was slashing the price of patented antiretrovirals indinavir and evafirenz
for SA and other developing countries.
Both these drugs are on the list of eight drugs for which Cipla CEO YK Hamied requested compulsory licenses in a letter to the registrar of patents, McDonald Netshitenzhe.
Inability to access expensive HIV/AIDS drugs has again come to the fore because of the high-profile court case in which 39 manufacturers have
taken the South African government to court over legislation that has been passed but not yet enacted. It would improve access to cheaper drugs,
but the manufacturers say it would infringe patent protection and other international trade requirements.
The new prices offered by Merck present reductions of about 40 percent to 50 percent from already discounted prices pledged to African governments last year. The
cost of Merck's Crixivan drug will be $600 a patient a year, while Stocrin will be offered at $500.
Cipla, a Bombay-based company, last month announced it planned to offer a cocktail of AIDS drugs for as little as $350 a year, or less than $1 a
day. The discounts would be for governments, nongovernmental organisations and public and private health schemes.
Cipla's discount offer has exposed what some experts called the "undeclared war being waged against poor countries by multinational pharma
companies". Jon Liden, the spokesman for the World Health Organisation, said Merck's move was in part a response to increasing competitive pressure from Indian
generic manufacturers. Aids activists in South Africa on Wednesday welcomed US drug giant Merck's offer to cut the price of its AIDS drug treatments in developing
countries, but said the company had not gone far enough. While we welcome the announcement by Merck to reduce prices, their patented products are still above those offered, for example by the Indian
manufacturer Hetero for 347 dollars year, said Toby Kasper of the French group Medécins Sans Frontiéres.
South Africa has the fastest rate of HIV infection in the world and about 10 percent of the adult population, or 4.2 million people, are HIV
positive according to UN figures. However, the release of the annual survey of HIV rates at public antenatal clinics by the national Department of Health
within the next few weeks, is expected to indicate that South African teenagers appear to be practicing safer sex, thus slowing HIV infection rates within this
critical age group.
Sources: Simon Barber and Pat Sidley: Business Day, 8 March 2001, Adele Shevel & Reuters: Business Report, 8 March 2001,
SAPA-AFP, 7 March 2001 and The
Times of India online