An Indian drug company has opened a factory in Uganda that will produce generic HIV/AIDS drugs in what local officials are praising as a crucial step to fight the pandemic across East Africa. Nick Wadhams has the story for VOA from Nairobi.

The pharmaceutical giant Cipla, one of the world's leading generic-drug makers, is partnering with the Ugandan-based Quality Chemicals company to manufacture the AIDS and malaria drugs in Uganda.

It is part of a larger push across the continent to produce the generic versions of expensive drugs at home. Ugandan officials say that less than half of the people in the country who need the drugs get them.

A spokesman for Uganda's health ministry, Dr. Sam Okware, says the presence of the factory will allow the government to reach more people who need anti-retroviral treatment. The government will not have to spend money importing drugs and will face fewer shortages in drug stockpiles.

"Actually it is long overdue because you see these are generic drugs. This is epicenter of HIV/AIDS, East and Central Africa are the epicenter, so it is very welcome. We are very happy as a country," he said. "I expect the quality of life of people living with HIV to improve, I expect now the government to be able to buy more drugs than before because now the drugs are available locally so the cost of transport will not be there. I also expect many of the people living with HIV/AIDS now to access this drug directly, not through the health-care system, through the private system."

Uganda has been a rare African AIDS success story, cutting its infection rates from about 15 percent in the early 1990s to five-percent in 2001. But recent statistics suggest that HIV/AIDS is again on the rise in Uganda.

The producers of generic drugs have recently had trouble keeping up with the latest developments because new Indian patent laws have made it more difficult for them to copy the most up-to-date drugs.

Okware says the new plant will be challenged to keep pace as new drugs are brought to market. The factory is expected to begin producing AIDS and malaria drugs in the next few months.

"The only other fear we have is that as we move forward there may be newer drugs, which are coming and it is important that they integrate the new discoveries in what is existing right now," said Okware. "The whole science of HIV/AIDS, especially drugs, is always evolving, so we need to hope that they will be able to incorporate new remedies into their current plan."

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has been an outspoken critic of some of the major drug companies and has demanded they sell their drugs cheaply. The average Ugandan makes about $2 a day, far too little to pay the full cost of anti-retroviral treatment.