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Cheaper AIDS Drugs to be More Available in South Africa

More relatively cheap AIDS drugs should soon be available for HIV-positive South Africans. Two drug producers reached agreement with the South African government Wednesday to allow more companies to make inexpensive generic versions of their patented products.

The campaign to make AIDS drugs more affordable for the more than five million HIV-positive South Africans achieved another victory Wednesday with the announcement of an out-of-court settlement that will pave the way for the production of more generic antiretroviral drugs.

According to the agreement, British-based GlaxoSmithKline and Germany's Boehringer Ingelheim will allow more companies to make generic versions of their AIDS drugs.

South African generic drug manufacturer Aspen Pharmacare already has begun producing generic versions of one antiretroviral and has permission from major drug companies to produce several more. But AIDS activists say the new agreement will open the market to more competition and eventually bring down prices even further.

Life-prolonging antiretroviral drugs are still too expensive for most South Africans who have AIDS. But as generics become more available, the AIDS activist group called the Treatment Action Campaign says a full treatment regime could cost as little as 300 rand, or about $48 a month.

In addition, the South African government has announced that it will begin providing the drugs for free through the public health system, but such a program could take years to fully implement.

The recent deal follows a ruling in October by South Africa's Competition Commission that the two companies had engaged in anti-competitive behavior. The HIV-positive woman who brought the issue before the commission, Hazel Tau, says she currently pays about 1200 rand, or $187 a month for her medications. That is double South Africa's average monthly income.

The Competition Commission said as a result of the agreement announced Wednesday, it will not recommend that the two companies be fined.

Meanwhile, a study published Wednesday by a South African business group indicates that AIDS is hurting the profits of many of the country's corporations.

The South African Business Coalition on HIV and AIDS surveyed more than 1,000 companies, and found they face higher costs and smaller markets due to the AIDS epidemic. Nine percent of the firms said HIV/AIDS has already had a significant impact on profits, while 43 percent said they expect a significant impact within the next five years.