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Roche cuts AIDS drug prices
- Swiss firm succumbs to pressure from activists

London, Feb. 13 (Reuters): Roche Holding AG is slashing the price of its AIDS drugs Viracept in the developing world following intense lobbying from activists, the Swiss healthcare company said today.

Humanitarian groups had criticised Roche for failing to cut the cost of its key medicine as much as other drug firms.

From next month, the treatment will be sold at no profit to governments and non-government organisations in sub-Saharan Africa and other least developed countries, bringing the cost down to around a quarter of the previous level.

A month’s supply of Viracept will in future cost 90.90 Swiss francs ($66.45) ex-factory in Basel, or around $800 a year, based on patients taking nine tablets a day.

That is still more than some AIDS drugs but David Reddy, head of the company’s HIV business, said it was comparable with prices charged for other so-called protease inhibitors.

Protease inhibitors helped revolutionise the treatment of HIV/AIDS when they were introduced in the mid-1990s. They now form a central component of triple therapy cocktails that have turned HIV infection into a manageable condition for many patients in the West.

“What’s being reflected in this price is that it costs more to make a protease inhibitor than it does to make one of the other classes of AIDS drugs,” Reddy said.

“It’s within the same range as other protease inhibitors, perhaps slightly higher, though that is dependent on dose. But it is significantly lower than any generic price.”

Viracept is a particularly attractive protease inhibitor for use in Africa because it does not require refrigeration.

Daniel Berman, a spokesman for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which has led the campaign to bring down the cost of Viracept, welcomed the Roche move.

“This has been a long, hard fight and we are gratified that Roche has capitulated. But this shows that having a voluntary system where it is just up to the companies to decide when and how they lower prices does not work,” he said.

Berman also argued the real Viracept price was nearer $900, since the World Health Organisation recommended a dose of 10 pills a day, not nine.

Makers of AIDS drugs have faced strident calls for cuts in AIDS drug prices in recent years, leading to the price of many to be slashed by 85 to 90 per cent in Africa.

Roche, however, has been accused of dragging its feet.

MSF complained last year that Viracept cost $4,124 per patient per year in Cameroon, a poor African country eligible for Roche’s lowest price, a reduction of only 40 to 50 per cent off French and Swiss retail prices.

The Swiss firm licenses Viracept from Pfizer Inc and Japan Tobacco Inc, neither of which will receive royalty payments under the“no profit” pricing scheme.

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