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CDC HIV/AIDS/Viral Hepatitis/STD/TB Prevention News Update
AIDS Drug Price War Is Far from Over
Tamar Kahn
October 24, 2003
Business Day (South Africa) (10.20.03) - Friday, October 24,

The Competition Commission last week recommended that GlaxoSmithKline and Boehringer Ingelheim be forced to allow cheap generic copies of their AIDS drugs in South Africa. The complaint originated with the Treatment Action Campaign and other activist groups who argued that, despite recent cuts, the prices the firms charge are excessively high. "These drugs are not like aspirin, you can't substitute one with another," said Jonathon Berger, a researcher with the AIDS Law Project, which represents the complainants.

The commission found that Boehringer and Glaxo had contravened the Competition Act by engaging in restrictive practices, such as denying competitors access to patents.

"Of course we have dominant market position [with nevirapine], we invented it," said Boehringer spokesperson Kevin McKenna, who said the commission's finding is "absolutely false, misleading and mischievous." He said Boehringer's South African branch sells nevirapine to the private sector at R360 (US$52)for a month's supply, down from more than R1,102 (US$157) in 2001.

Boehringer is sympathetic to further price reductions, said McKenna, noting that the firm has granted Aspen Pharmacare a voluntary license to manufacture generic nevirapine. The drug is still awaiting registration by the Medicines Control Council. Once registered, it may be sold only to the public sector - which does not yet provide antiretrovirals to AIDS patients.

Glaxo dominates the market, holding patents on AZT (Retrovir), lamivudine (3TC) and the two combined (Combivir). As the commission was issuing its finding, Glaxo said it had slashed public sector prices of its drugs in developing countries and extended the license it had given Aspen to manufacture generics to include the private sector and other sub-Saharan countries. Aspen awaits registration of its generic versions of Glaxo's drugs. Both Glaxo and Boehringer say the commission's announcement took them by surprise.