BRASILIA, Brazil (Reuters) - Brazil has moved a step closer to
breaking AIDS drugs patents by asking U.S. companies for the
right to copy four products so the country can slash health
costs, the government said on Tuesday.
Brazil requested Merck & Co. Inc., Abbot Laboratories Inc. and Gilead Sciences Inc.
to grant "voluntary licensing" of drug technology so it
can keep its much-copied AIDS program afloat, the health ministry
Brazil imports the four drugs used in its free, anti-AIDS
cocktail. It wants to make copies and pay royalties.
The products in question are Merck's Efavirenz, Abott's Lopinavir
and Ritonavir, and Gilead's Tenofovir.
"We expect to cut by half what we currently pay," the ministry's
health control secretary, Jarbas Barbosa, said in a statement on
the request sent on Monday.
Brazil has often threatened to break drug patents unless foreign
manufacturers slashed costs.
Latin America's largest country now says it can no longer afford
to import AIDS drugs and must become self-sufficient.
Under Brazilian law, and based on World Trade Organization rules,
a nation can break drug patents by applying a "compulsory
license" on a product if it is a case of national emergency or
That would mean Brazil would begin domestic manufacture of
products without permission. It would still pay royalties.
"They (U.S. companies) know we are talking seriously of applying
a compulsory license," Barbosa said.
Company officials in Brazil and the United States were not
immediately available for comment.
In the 1990s experts expected more than 1 million Brazilians to
contract AIDS by 2000. Brazil began free access to its AIDS drug
cocktail in 1997 and has kept the number of people living with
HIV at around 600,000.
The government expects to increase the number of Brazilians on
AIDS drugs to 180,000 in 2005 from 150,000 in 2004.
The cost of providing foreign imports of drugs in the cocktail
has skyrocketed from 50 percent of the program's budget in 1998
to an estimated 85 percent in 2005.
Brazil makes eight of the cocktail's 16 drugs and hopes to begin
manufacture of more in the first half of 2005.
The country lacks pharmaceutical industry technology and capacity
to manufacture all 16 drugs.