London, Dec. 29: Medicines provided cheaply to treat Aids patients in Africa are being smuggled back into Britain and sold for profit on the black market, The Telegraph can reveal.
The police believe that African officials are making tens of millions of pounds a year selling drugs shipped to them at cost price that fetch a huge premium in mainland Europe.
British investigators have smashed one smuggling ring in Senegal, West Africa, where a government-appointed official sold £12 million worth of Aids drugs to pharmacists in Europe. Another smuggling ring in South Africa is being investigated by Interpol, the international police service.
The discovery is an embarrassment to ministers who have placed enormous pressure on pharmaceutical companies to provide Aids drugs to Africa for no profit. The pressure culminated in November this year with Tony Blair pushing through a two-tier pricing system to ensure the supply of cheap medicines to poorer countries.
As a result, hundreds of millions of pounds worth of Aids drugs are being sold at cost price to Africa, where in some nations as many as one in three adults is infected with HIV. The drugs are supplied on the understanding that they will not be sold for profit in developed nations.
Investigators working for GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the British pharmaceuticals giant, discovered in October that millions of pounds worth of one drug, Combivir, sent exclusively for African patients, had been reimported into Europe via France and Belgium.
About 34,410 packs of Combivir were discovered in European ports, along with 8,058 packs of Epivir and 1,100 packs of Trizivir. The drugs check HIV’s assault on the immune system.
A box of 60 Combivir tablets sells for £342.58 in Britain. Under an agreement with GSK, the drug is sold in Africa at its cost price of £32.70 a box, allowing smugglers to sell at a discount in Europe but still make profits of hundreds of pounds on each pack. The racketeers stood to make more than £100 on each pack of Epivir and almost £500 on each pack of Trizivir.
Detectives found that drugs returned from Senegal had been sold on by Africa Aids Africa (AAA), a Senegalese agency set up by Abdoulaye Wade, the President, and funded by Western governments. Latife Gueye, the head of AAA appointed by Wade, admitted selling the drugs to European businessmen.
He, however, said he was doing so only because he needed to buy vital equipment. Gueye has since been sacked and is being investigated by police. “I do not believe that I have done anything morally wrong,” he said.
President Wade told journalists on Senegalese television that Geuye had committed extremely serious errors. “This has been a disaster for Senegal’s Aids programme,” he said.
A spokesman for GSK said that further investigations involving Interpol has been launched in other African countries. Detectives are also investigating the discovery of more than £10 million worth of Aids-related drugs believed to have been smuggled out of South Africa, some of which turned up in London.