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India to Work with Drug Companies on Lowering Price of AIDS Drugs - 2003-11-30

The Indian government announced Sunday a new plan to make cheaper AIDS drugs available to the people of India. The government says it created the plan in part because of a prevention program created by a foundation connected with former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Minister of Health Sushma Swaraj said she was impressed by a Clinton Foundation plan for Indian manufacturers to provide cheap anti-retroviral drugs to HIV sufferers around the world.

Four Indian pharmaceutical companies signed an agreement with the foundation earlier this month to bring down the price of the drugs by about one-third. But because the Indian government is not a formal participant in the Clinton Foundation's AIDS initiative, those cheap drugs will not go to HIV positive people in India. Instead, they are bound for a handful of nations in Africa and the Caribbean whose governments are part of the Clinton Foundation plan.

Ms. Swaraj wants to work with the Indian drug manufacturers to change this. She said, "We asked them, 'If you can lower the prices for the Clinton Foundation to 39 cents from $1.00, why can't we reduce further prices for our own domestic people?'"

The Indian government's announcement that it will work more closely with its pharmaceutical companies comes the day before World Aids Day and roughly a week after a visit from former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

The Clinton Foundation's AIDS initiative works by securing commitments from nations with high HIV infection rates, such as South Africa, to buy anti-retroviral drugs in bulk from pharmaceutical companies that agree to produce them at lower rates.

India's infection rate is high and climbing. The World Health Organization says at least 4.5 million people are infected with HIV, and several Indian states are facing epidemics. The WHO says HIV is moving quickly into the general population, instead of remaining confined to high-risk groups such as sex-workers or intravenous drug users.

Bill Clinton says the deal almost guarantees Indian pharmaceutical companies a massive return on investment, even while serving humanitarian goals. "They are going from a high profit, lower volume business to a lower-profit per treatment, higher-volume business," said Mr. Clinton.

Anti-retroviral drugs help prevent people who are HIV positive from developing AIDS itself, allowing infected people to live longer. AIDS activists also say the availability of the drugs encourages people to get tested for HIV, because getting the virus is no longer a death sentence.

Kenneth Wind-Andersen, the India Coordinator of the U.N. AIDS program, says this in turn helps stop the disease from spreading.

"It will also promote people to come and take the tests," said Mr. Wind-Andersen. "So by starting a treatment regime, you also give measures to the prevention side."

Minister for Health Swaraj says the government will introduce fiscal incentives for Indian pharmaceutical companies so they can start providing cheap anti-retroviral drugs to six Indian states with high HIV rates, before expanding the program. She expects that plan to be finalized within five months.