Liu Kangmai, an official at the Health Ministry's Aids Prevention and Control Centre, told the Beijing Star Daily on Wednesday that the Government intended to cut the price of Aids drugs by 90 per cent to make them affordable.
According to Mr Liu, Beijing has two options: to force foreign pharmaceutical firms to reduce prices or to ignore patents they hold on expensive HIV drugs. He said if Beijing took the latter course, it would be following the example of the Brazilian Government, which allowed the copying of patented Aids drugs. The Brazilians cited a special clause in the World Trade Organisation charter that some products could be exempted from international treaty protections - including the convention on international patents - in life-threatening cases.
The Government is yet to start negotiations with foreign drug companies, but officials have indicated it may take a tough line if efforts to reach an agreement fail.
Zhao Wenli, a spokesman at the Aids Prevention and Control Centre, sought to play down the report. "Because we are about to enter the World Trade Organisation, China is abiding by world treaties, including the international patent rights law," he said. But Mr Zhao said the ministry was looking into ways to reach a compromise with foreign firms.
"We have to find some way to lower the drug prices in order to save the lives of Chinese Aids patients," Mr Zhao said. According to the Beijing Star Daily, 74 Aids sufferers were being treated with a cocktail of drugs from US-based companies and their conditions had stabilised.
"I was drowning, and someone came to the rescue," was how one patient described feeling after the treatment worked. However, a number of participants had to drop out of the subsidised programme because the costs were still too high, the report said. "I really don't know if I can last until the drugs are affordable," one woman on the programme said.
After years of ignoring the deadly virus and denying there was any problem with the spread of HIV on the mainland, the Government has finally confronted the cost of dealing with it, both in financial and in human terms. But the potential for mounting medical costs has left it feeling the pinch.
According to Mr Zhao, the average Aids patient spends from 100,000 yuan (HK= $94,350) to 200,000 yuan each year on medical bills - well beyond the reach of most Chinese patients.
A recent official tally of the number of people on the mainland who are HIV positive has grown by 5,661 in the past nine months to 28,133. But the real number of people living with the virus was estimated by many experts to be above 600,000 by the end of September. Of the registered patients, 1,208 have developed full cases of Aids and 641 have died.