16 February, 2004 AIDS Activists Blast Roche's 'Pay or Die' Policy

Richard Stern, February 10, 2004
Agua Buena Human Rights Association

In a three hour session held February 5th, at the World Community Advisory Board (World CAB) meeting in San Francisco, Christopher Murray, Director of the Pharmaceuticals Division for the Swiss Phamarceutical Company Hoffman La-Roche, which makes the anti-retroviral protease inhibitor Viracept, said that price reductions for the product are "not negotiable." World CAB is a coalition of AIDS activists from around the world. 28 activists from 20 countries attended the three day San Francisco summit, where meetings were also held with other companies which produce anti-retrovirals.

Viracept is an important second line anti-retroviral which sells for $889 per person per year in Sub-Saharan Africa, and some other low income countries, but Roche's price jumps to over $2,900 per person per year for lower middle level income countries including many countries in Eastern Europe, Asia, North Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean Viracept is patented in many of these countries.

Murray acknowledged that the $889 per year price is Roche's not-for-profit price and that the company's profit on Viracept is over $2000 per year per person in lower middle income countries. In countries classified by the World Bank as "higher middle income," a total of 34, the price is over $4,800 per year, or more in some cases, and profit would be nearly $4,000 per year per person.

'Breathtaking Indifference'

Mark Harrington Director of the Treatment Action Group (TAG) in New York blasted Murray, commenting that "in over fourteen years of meeting with representatives of the Research and Development based pharmaceutical industry, I have never seen an example of such breathtaking indifference to the plight of people living with AIDS as that displayed by Roche's Christopher Paul Murray at the World Cab meeting. His basic message to PWA's was 'if you can't pay our prices, its a matter of indifference to us whether you live or die.'"

According to Murray, who distributed his own biographical sketch to participants as the meeting began, "UNAIDS and WHO asked us to offer a preferential price for Southern Africa and we have complied, there is nothing more to say." According to Murray's biography "throughout his 27 year career at Roche, he has been involved in issues and problems related to healthcare delivery in developing countries in Asia and Africa." Said James Kamau from the Kenya Treatment Access Movement: "The Roche representative was saying 'you pay you live, the choice is yours, we are not a charitable organization.'" In the meeting, Kamau had pointed out to Murray that Roche's price structure would result in deaths even in Africa where $890 a year is still completely unaffordable.

'Sub-standard Clinical Trials'

The activists also focused on Roche's Thailand based Clinical trials with their $25,000 per year drug T-20 (Fuzeon) in a country where the drug may never be available because of its price. According to TAG's Harrington, the cocktail used by Roche in its Thailand trial is sub-standard HAART, (Highly Active Anti-retroviral Treatment) and would never have been approved under standards for studies that currently exist in the US and Europe. Karyn Kaplan of the Thai AIDS Treatment Action group promised "immediate action," adding that "Roche flaunts ethical standards in its clinical trials on poor people. Roche is testing Fuzeon in a sub-therapeutic combination without making it affordable to the local community."

Rolake Nwaumu from the Treatment Action Movement in Nigeria stated that "if you appoint a representative to act on your behalf, than you are accountable for their actions and liable for their misdeeds. For Roche to stand aloof, unconcerned and try to absolve itself from atrocities commmited in clinical trials is totally unacceptable.

At the close of the meeting with Roche, Lei Chou of the AIDS Treatment Action Coalition commented to Murray and other representatives from Roche that at some point history would judge Roche for "Crimes Against Humanity." At that point Murray packed up his things and the meeting ended. John Day from the National Association of People Living with HIV from Australia echoed Chou's sentiments: "To stand by and watch people die from AIDS when these deaths are preventable is a crime against humanity and the drug companies have a great deal to answer for."

'Total Disrespect towards PLWA'

Mauro Guarinieri of the European AIDS Treatment Group (EATG) was especially critical of Murray's demeanor in the meeting,, saying "Mr. Murray's position on pricing and his unwillingness to validate a group of advocates from all over the world was totally disrespectful to the Global Community of People Living with HIV/AIDS." According to Indian Activist Subha Raghavan: "I was shocked to hear Roche's strong stand on Viracept prices which was: 'We are not in the business of saving lives, but we are in the business of making money, saving lives is not simply our responsibility'. To hear these words coming from a senior official in Roche that had spend considerable amount of time in developing countries was depressing."

Countries represented by activists at the meeting included Zambia, Kenya, Nigeria, Thailand, India, Namibia, Egypt. Bulgaria, Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Georgia, Italy, United Kingdom, Indonesia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Australia, Jamaica and the United States.

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