More Action Urged To Cut Drug Prices For Poor

Western drugmakers should do more to cut prices and must recognise that developing countries have a right to break patents to guarantee access to vital medicines, a top official said on Thursday.

International development minister Gareth Thomas said poor countries must be allowed to make the most of existing patent rules to provide low-cost drugs and it was not acceptable for big companies to just protect their own commercial interests.

“We support, absolutely, the right of developing countries to use the flexibilities of the system when there is a big public health issue,” Thomas told Reuters during an international conference on access to medicines.

Controversy over the matter has flared up since Thailand two months ago issued compulsory licences to override patents and allow the production or purchase of generic versions of drugs, stunning leading pharmaceutical firms. Thomas declined to comment specifically on the Thai case but said there was a clear need to do more to cut the price of certain life-saving therapies.

Figures released by the World Health Organisation this week showed more than 2 million people living with HIV/AIDS in low- and middle-income countries were receiving treatment at the end of 2006 — but this was still well below what was needed.

Experts have also warned that a growing number of patients require second-line therapies because they have developed resistance to their initial medication. Yet the price of these products is typically many times higher than the original drugs, pushing them out of reach.

U.S. drugmaker Abbott Laboratories Inc. earlier this month offered to slash the cost of one such second-line AIDS drug, Kaletra, by more than half to $1,000 per patient a year in 40 poor countries.

The move followed intense criticism by AIDS activists and a spat with Thailand over its compulsory licence plans. Thomas said there should be more such price reductions. “I hope we are going to see more action in terms of lowering prices on second-line ARVs (antiretrovirals). Many are still simply unaffordable for countries with over-stretched health budgets,” he said.

“There is also a debate to be had about whether we can see more companies within the industry moving to the low-cost, high-volume way of doing things. We want to explore whether there are the right incentives for that,” he added.