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Cheaper AIDS Medications May Soon be Available to Developing Nations - 2004-04-06

Millions of AIDS patients around the world could benefit from cheaper therapies under a new agreement among global donor organizations and drug companies in South Africa and India. The plan expands a program negotiated last year by the foundation of former U.S. President Bill Clinton. The Clinton Foundation has joined with the Global Fund, the World Bank, and the U.N. Children's Fund UNICEF in a deal to buy AIDS medicines at the lowest possible prices for sale to developing nations.

Clinton Foundation Executive Vice President Lynn Margherio in Boston says pharmaceutical companies in South Africa and India will provide the therapies, known as anti-retrovirals, or ARVs.

"Over time, we anticipate this agreement will benefit millions of people," she said. "This will happen on a gradual basis, but we anticipate very shortly that hundreds of thousands of patients will be able to benefit from low cost ARVs."

In many cases, the AIDS drugs will cost from one-third to half the price of those currently available. Ms. Margherio says they will range from $140 per patient per year to $239, depending on the combination prescribed.

The therapies are approved by the World Health Organization, which qualifies drugs based on test data and inspections of manufacturing facilities. Some of the pills contain just one drug while others combine two or three in one tablet. Advocates of the combined formulations argue that they make it easier for patients to comply with their therapy.

But the U.S. government has been reluctant to approve them for its own $15 billion, five-year international AIDS treatment program. It says it is not sure the combined formulations are safe and effective because it has not seen the test data on them. The Bush administration program uses drugs made by Western pharmaceutical companies that hold the patents on them.

However, Lynn Margherio says the South African and Indian drugs being used in the new plan are of high quality.

"We are looking to the WHO prequalification process as a good process, and one that does assure high quality medicines to the developing world," she adds. "It's the view of all of the organizations that are part of this recent agreement that we are not looking to set up a second class standard of care for the developing world."

The new low-cost AIDS drug plan expands a program negotiated by the Clinton Foundation last year from 16 countries to potentially more than 100 nations. In order to participate, governments must meet certain principles. They must guarantee payment for the drugs and they must provide security to ensure the drugs are not stolen by black marketeers for resale at large profits. Clinton Foundation officials say this may prevent some national health systems from initially participating.