Palm Beach Post: A Tug-of-War, A Funeral, and Drug Prices

A Tug-of-War, A Funeral, and Drug Prices

By Antigone Barton | Wednesday, August 6, 2008, 03:05 PM
Palm Beach Post
[Intenational AIDS Conference Blog]

MEXICO CITY — This morning we had a funeral procession at the International AIDS conference, complete with a black-draped coffin followed by sobbing, wailing, black-robed people wearing ghastly white masks and carrying signs chastising pharmaceutical company Abbott for causing the death of their loved one, “Por Falta Katetra.” (Of Lack of Kaletra)

Kaletra (generically it is called lopinavir/ritonavir) is one of the best drugs around for AIDS patients, activists say, with few side effects, low resistance build-up, and it doesn’t need to be refrigerated, which is critical in the hot climates where the epidemic has rampaged.

But Abbott keeps it expensive, and that makes sustaining treatment as well as enrolling more patients for treatment difficult. Abbott’s reluctance to negotiate its high prices has kept the company in the sights of treatment access activists for years. Attendees at the 2004 International AIDS Conference in Bangkok still recall how the drug company’s posh booth in the exhibit hall disappeared, suddenly, just one strip of paper left waving pathetically from a remaining support brace.

No one can recall an Abbott booth at the Toronto conference, although the company bought space there, and activists can’t find one this year.

This morning’s funeral however, was followed by an afternoon “tug-of-war,” with patients living with HIV and in need of Kaletra on one side, and the pharmaceutical giant on the other.
This one was designed to draw attention to the situation in Columbia , where the government pays nearly 1,700 a year to treat each patient, although surrounding countries that either buy a generic version of the drug or have negotiated a lower price with Abbott pay half as much or less.

Under international trade law the country could over-ride the drug company’s patent and get a cheaper generic version too, but it hasn’t.

A lower price would mean the ability to treat at least twice as many patients and have more money for other health care demands that, in turn could prevent new infections, says Kaytee Riek of Health GAP (the GAP stands for Global Access Project.)

When only 27 percent of the estimated 10 million people who need treatment for AIDS are getting it, this is a deadly waste, Riek says.

Riek was in Bangkok when the Abbott booth came down, and doesn’t remember if she was involved in that specific effort.

“I did a lot of things,” she sighed.

She was new to activism then, her involvement sparked after a two-week trip at 17 to Africa where she caught Malaria. A five-dollar treatment cured her, of the malaria but left her with a lingering sense of dissatisfaction because she also learned that people who couldn’t afford the cure, or get to it were dying.

“It was so very clear,” she says now, “that there was something wrong when there’s millions of people dying and the cost of keeping them alive is so little.”

She looks tired now, running from protest to protest at this conference, in the midst of a campaign season where she’s raised health access issues across the country.

She doesn’t have anything against Abbott, per se, or any of the other protest targets.

“It’s a good drug,” she says. “It’s just so overpriced.”

Peter Maybarduk, an attorney for the Wash., DC-based Essential Action, a nonprofit that works on health equity issues, wore a suit, tie, shades and waved fistfuls of bills, more tucked behind his ears as he portrayed Abbott, shouting at protesters to “talk to the hand.”

But he says, the responsibility lies with Columbia to issue a compulsory license, a move allowed by international trade law to over-ride the drug company’s patent.

“This is a move demanded by public health needs he says. “Our aim isn’t to target Abbott. Our aim is to increase access to an important AIDS treatment.”