March 15, 2006

Relief Group Seeks Access to New HIV Drug in Africa

By Tume Ahemba

LAGOS (Reuters) - Humanitarian group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) urged U.S. drugmaker Abbot Laboratories Inc. on Wednesday to make a new HIV drug accessible in developing countries, especially Africa.

MSF (Doctors Without Borders) said a new formulation of Abbot's lopinavir/ritonavir (LPV/r) drug has critical advantages for patients in poor countries including lower daily pill count, storage without refrigeration and no dietary restrictions.

"It is a cruel irony that although this drug with no need for refrigeration seems to have been designed for places like Nigeria, it is not available here," MSF's Helen Bygrave said at a news conference in Lagos, Nigeria's biggest city.

Sub-Saharan Africa has about 10 percent of the world's population but 60 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS. Nigeria, with 3.5 million people living with HIV/AIDS, has the world's third-biggest caseload after South Africa and India.

More than 3 million Africans were newly infected with HIV in 2005, representing 64 percent of all new infections globally and more than in any previous year for the impoverished continent, according to UNAIDS.

MSF provides anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs for over 60,000 patients in nine countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It said it urgently needed the new LPV/r because refrigeration is unavailable to many people in poor countries because of poverty and a lack of stable electricity.

The new formulation, marketed under the name Kaletra, is in tablet form and does not melt at high temperatures unlike the old version which is in capsules.


MSF said the new version of Kaletra, which was approved by the U.S. Food and Drugs Administration last October, was not available in any developing country.

It urged Abbot to register the new version in developing countries, sell it at less than $500 per patient per year which it said was the price for the old version, and remove patent barriers to allow production of generic versions of the drug.

In a response to MSF published on its Web site, Abbott said it was pursuing registration for the new LPV/r in developing countries as rapidly as possible. It also said it was making its HIV medicines available in 69 of the world's poorest countries.

"While pricing for the new lopinavir/ritonavir tablet formulation has not yet been established in countries outside the U.S., Abbott has taken a responsible approach to pricing its HIV medicines and will continue to do so," the firm said.

Kaletra is a "second-line" drug which can be used when standard anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) stop working.

MSF said that in 2005, 6 percent of its patients who had been on ARVs for three years had needed to switch to second-line drugs, while one MSF program found that after four years of ARV treatment, 16 percent of patients needed second-line drugs.

"These data underline the acute and growing need for access to newer, field-adapted second-line drugs," MSF said.

Ibrahim Umoru, one of 1,200 patients at the MSF clinic in Lagos said: "Thousands of people like me need this new drug. For many of us it is a matter of life and death."

Umoru, who has been on the old version of Kaletra for about five weeks, said he has to refrigerate his medicine at a friend's place several streets away from his home.