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Petition fails to reverse massive price rise for AIDS drug

Nature volume 430, page 715 (12 August 2004) | Download Citation


National Institutes of Health refuses to take action over treatment costs


The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has declined to impose a price cut on a key AIDS medicine.

The refusal to accede to complaints about drug costs, made after drug firm Abbott Laboratories hiked the price of one of its AIDS medications by more than 400%, won praise from research universities.

“Pharmaceutical pricing is an issue, but marching in on a company's patent is not the appropriate way to deal with it,” says Patrick White, director of federal relations at the Association of American Universities in Washington. The association feared that NIH intervention would deter companies from commercializing scientific findings.

The NIH's decision stemmed from a petition filed in January by Essential Inventions, a Washington-based patent watchdog (see Nature 429, 6; 200410.1038/429006b). The group was protesting about the cost of Abbott's Norvir, which is used to boost the effectiveness of other AIDS therapies. Abbott, based in Abbott Park, Illinois, raised the price in December from $1.71 to $8.57 a day. Critics alleged that the move was designed to push patients towards Abbott's combination pill, Kaletra, which contains Norvir but was not subject to the price increase.

Essential Inventions asked the NIH to invoke laws to make the drug available in generic form. The agency can do this to patented inventions developed with NIH funds if they are not being made available under “reasonable” terms.

But on 4 August, Bonny Harbinger of the NIH's Office of Technology Transfer said that Norvir is already available to the public on reasonable terms, as it is marketed by Abbott and prescribed by physicians. “We think the issue of drug pricing is appropriately left for Congress and the administration to address legislatively,” Harbinger said.

The ruling has angered AIDS patients, watchdog groups and some politicians, who vowed to fight for lower drug prices. They add that the Norvir debate has put the issue of the escalating costs of prescription drugs on the political agenda in the run-up to this November's presidential election. “This will encourage patent owners to price their products more aggressively,” says James Love, president of Essential Inventions.

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