Bristol-Myers Squibb cuts Africa price of AIDS drugs

Treatments to cost $1 a day for each patient

March 15, 2001|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Bristol-Myers Squibb announced yesterday that it will sell AIDS medicines for less than $1 a day to countries in Africa, making it the latest company to enter into an escalating global drug price rivalry.

With sub-Saharan Africa devastated by AIDS, pharmaceutical companies are under growing moral, political and economic pressure to help relieve the suffering of millions of diseased and impoverished people there. The drug companies recently have begun to respond, but their efforts remain controversial.

Critics say they are public relations gestures inadequate to the need.

Bristol-Myers said it would price the AIDS drug Zerit at 15 cents per day and the drug Videx at 85 cents per day. The price cuts, effective immediately, come in addition to a 90 percent price reduction on these drugs that Bristol-Myers offered to developing countries in May.

The company also announced that it would make the patent rights available for the drug Zerit in South Africa, allowing generic-drug companies there to produce it.

Bristol-Myers holds no other patent rights for AIDS drugs in other African countries.

"This is not about profits and patents, it's about poverty and a devastating disease. We seek no profits on AIDS drugs in Africa, and we will not let our patents be an obstacle," said John McGoldrick, executive vice president of Bristol-Myers.

Price competition for AIDS drugs in Africa began last month, when Cipla Ltd., a generic drug company based in India, announced that it would offer generic versions of AIDS medicines to governments of developing countries for discounted prices.

A week ago, Merck & Co. announced that it would offer at-cost prices for its AIDS medicines in several developing countries.

Though drug companies say they are motivated by humanitarian concerns, critics question the timing of these announcements. Bristol-Myers and Merck & Co. are among 39 major drug companies involved in a lawsuit against the government of South Africa over its drug policy.

They are contesting a law enacted in 1997 that seeks to make the generally cheaper generic versions of drugs for AIDS and other diseases more available to South African citizens.

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