Cape Town

Further AIDS? Concessions ‘should be applied to other drugs too’. Credit: SHAUN HARRIS/PICTURENET AFRICA

South African government officials have reacted cautiously to a deal announced last week by five major companies to slash the price of HIV and AIDS drugs for developing nations (see above). They are concerned that this could undermine efforts to reduce the cost of other medicines.

Patricia Lambert, adviser to South African health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, has said that any effort to bring down drug prices should be welcomed. But she added that concessions for obtaining cheaper AIDS drugs should be applied to other medicines as well.

Lambert was also reported by Dow Jones newswires as saying that “if this offer is attached to a condition that governments like South Africa should not pursue generic substitution, parallel importing and compulsory licensing, then it is not genuine and unacceptable”.

But spokespersons for the pharmaceutical industry have denied any formal link between intellectual-property issues and the companies' deal. The deal, announced in Geneva last week, involves Boehringer Ingelheim, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck, Hoffmann-La Roche and Glaxo Wellcome.

Both Mirryena Deeb, chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers' Association of South Africa, and Peter Moore, medical director in Glaxo Wellcome's Johannesburg office, said they are unaware of any formal link between the offer to reduce the costs of the drugs and patent protection.

Moore suggests that the deal should make the generic substitution of AIDS drugs unnecessary, and says there is no substance to Lambert's suspicions of a hidden agenda to protect the price of other drugs. “To the contrary, if this programme works with AIDS drugs, there are no reasons why it should not be extended to treatments for other diseases as well,” he says. “But the position will change in South Africa only when the concerned parties are prepared to sit around the table and trust each other.”

Last week's announcement came against a backdrop of parliamentary hearings on HIV and AIDS in which health director-general Ayanda Ntsaluba revealed that he had been talking to the trade and industry department with a view to introducing compulsory licensing which would allow access to cheaper drugs.

Deeb called Lambert's statement “disappointing, as she is questioning the bona fides not only of the industry, but of the World Bank and UNAIDS”, the agencies that brokered the deal. “If it is true, her statement is an ungracious response to a genuine attempt to make a difference.”