Aids drugs for Africa deal is off as pharma giants pull out

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bad news Some of the world's biggest pharmaceutical companies, including FTSE 100 giant GlaxoSmithKline, have failed to sign a formal agreement that would ensure HIV and Aids patients in poor nations receive vital drugs.

The agreement was drawn up during three years of talks between companies and the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM), which has 20 million members and 400 affiliated unions worldwide. As well as GSK, the other companies involved are Pfizer, Roche, Boehringer Ingelheim, Bristol Myers Squibb, Merck, Abbott Laboratories and Gilead Science.

The plan proposes that companies provide "high-quality HIV/Aids medicines and related products for impoverished people in sub-Saharan Africa and other least developed countries (LDCs) at no-profit prices".

It also backs licensing proprietary technology - so that copies of drugs can be produced cheaply - boosting educational programmes, reducing the stigma of the diseases and ensuring drugs are not diverted to countries where they could be illegally sold on. But Fred Higgs, ICEM's general secretary, said the talks had failed. None of the companies had said they would not sign, he claimed, but neither had any said they would.

"While there was the slightest chance of getting this, I was prepared to carry on. But we have got to the point where this isn't going to happen. This initiative is dead. This had the potential of providing millions of people with the necessary drugs."

Anti-retrovirals, which significantly slow the onset of Aids, are very expensive, putting them out of reach of many in countries where the virus is rampant.

Over the years, drug companies have reacted to criticism, and many now provide cheap drugs and allow generic copies. But some campaigners feel they do not go far enough, and warn that the virus can become resistant to the types of anti-retrovirals made available. The ICEM had hoped to widen the scope and formalise activities under one central agreement.

A GSK spokesman said: "GSK is making ... efforts to broaden access to HIV treatments in developing countries. We are very open to working in partnership with ICEM, and ... have expressed an interest in working with them several times since 2003.

"However, the proposals ... have been too general to move forward constructively."

Roche said it too had not received enough detail from the ICEM. "We remain open to continuing to talk," said Maria Vigneau, director of external relationships for HIV and Aids. "We do take [ICEM] very seriously."

Dirk van Eeden, Abbott's director for HIV communication and policy, said the company had been providing anti-retrovirals at $500 (£252) per patient per year to Africa and LDCs since 2002, so did not believe a formal partnership with ICEM was needed.

A Boehringer spokeswoman said the company provided free drugs though schemes such as the Viramune donation programme. Viramune stops HIV- positive mothers passing on the virus during birth.

Merck, Gilead, Pfizer and Bristol Myers were unavailable for comment.

source - Independent UK