Roche Cuts AIDS Drug Price for Developing World Following Protests

Roche Holding AG (ROCZg.VX) is slashing the price of its AIDS drugs Viracept in the developing world following intense lobbying from activists, the Swiss healthcare group said on Thursday.

In the future, the treatment will be sold at no profit to governments and non-government organizations in sub-Saharan Africa and other Least Developed Countries.

The move brings the cost of a month's supply of Viracept down to $66.45, based on an ex-factory price in Basel, or around $800 a year.

That is still higher than the cost of some types of AIDS drugs but David Reddy, head of the company's HIV business, said it was comparable with prices charged for other so-called protease inhibitors.

Protease inhibitors helped revolutionize the treatment of HIV/AIDS when they were introduced in the mid-1990s. They now form a key component of triple therapy cocktails that have turned HIV infection into a manageable condition for many patients.

"What's being reflected in this price is that it costs more to make a protease inhibitor than it does to make one of the other classes of AIDS drugs," Reddy told Reuters.

"It's within the same range as other protease inhibitors, perhaps slightly higher, though that is dependent on dose. But it is significantly lower than any generic price."

Makers of AIDS drugs have faced strident calls for cuts in AIDS drug prices in recent years, leading to the price of many to be slashed by 85 to 90 percent in Africa.

Roche, however, has been accused of dragging its feet.

Humanitarian group Medecins Sans Frontieres complained last year that Viracept cost $4,124 per patient per year in Cameroon, a poor African country eligible for Roche's lowest price, a reduction of only 40 to 50 percent off French and Swiss retail prices.

The Swiss firm licenses Viracept from Pfizer Inc. (PFE.N) and Japan Tobacco Inc. (2914.T), neither of which will receive royalty payments under the "no profit" pricing scheme.

Roche is among a group of international drugmakers that launched a preferential pricing scheme for AIDS drugs in May 2000 to help speed access to life-saving medicines in Africa, the epicenter of the global pandemic.

Industry figures show more than 35,500 Africans were receiving cut-price HIV/AIDS drugs at the end of March 2002, a four-fold increase over the previous 18 months but still only 0.01 percent of those infected on the continent.