HIV/AIDS patients in poor countries to get cheaper drugs after deal with drugmaker Gilead

An unidentified African resident of Pamplona northern Spain, holds a red symbol of the fight against AIDS during events for World Aids Day Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010 .
AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos
AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos

(CBS/AP) HIV/AIDS patients in poor countries may finally get access to the antiretroviral drugs they desperately need.

Drugmaker Gilead Sciences Inc. announced Tuesday its plan to allow four of its AIDS drugs to be made by generic manufacturers, potentially increasing their availability in poor countries - particularly in Africa. Most of the 33 million people worldwide who have HIV live on the continent.

In the first deal of its kind, the pharmaceutical company agreed to provide the drugs in return for three to five percent of royalties, United Nations health officials said.

The deal was negotiated by the Medicines Patent Pool - a U.N.-led partnership that raises money for AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Last year, the U.S. National Institutes of Health allowed one of its patented drugs to be made generically via the same group, but this the first deal with a private company.

"We will continue to work with Gilead and others to expand access to all people living with HIV in developing countries," said Ellen 't Hoen, executive director of the Medicines Patent Pool.

Other pharmaceutical companies, including F. Hoffman-La Roche, Sequoia Pharmaceuticals and ViiV Healthcare, a joint venture between GlaxoSmithKline PLC and Pfizer Inc., are in talks with the U.N.-led group. Other major drugmakers including Johnson and Johnson, Abbott Laboratories, and Merck & Co. have so far declined to negotiate with the group.

Gilead, one of the world's biggest producers of AIDS drugs, will supply the drugs to about 100 countries. Until now, its drugs have been mainly sold in rich countries, and profits from the new deal are expected to be a tiny fraction of those Gilead gets from the West.

AIDS patients in poor countries typically have to wait for years until drug patents expire before they can obtain cheaper generic versions. But some experts questioned whether the deal went far enough and pointed out it specifically excludes manufacturers in Thailand and Brazil, which both produce large amounts of generic drugs.

"This agreement is an improvement over what other big pharma companies are doing to ensure access to their patented AIDS medicines in developing countries," said Michelle Childs, a director at Doctors Without Border's campaign for access to essential medicines. Still, she warned caution was necessary and that the new deal "should not become the template for future agreements."

The World Health Organization has more on HIV/AIDS.