Gilead Sciences has discovered that its attempt to provide a cheaper version of its AIDS drug, Viread, in poor countries has met with a maze of bureaucracy and regulations that has slowed its distribution and brought the company yet more criticism from AIDS activists.
The simmering controversy over Gilead's access program illustrates how even the best of corporate intentions can run afoul of conflicting interests when it comes to the world's AIDS crisis.
Activists have long criticized drug companies for the high cost of their AIDS treatments and their efforts to block generic–drug makers from marketing cheaper versions overseas—particularly in Africa, the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic. To counter that image, many companies have set up programs in which they donate AIDS drugs or make them available at cost to poor nations—only to sometimes find themselves still catching flak for these initiatives.
Other big drug companies have routinely come in for such criticism. Doctors Without Borders recently blasted Abbott Laboratories for failing to provide sufficient access to a heat–stable version of its AIDS drug Kaletra outside the U.S., saying the company has been too slow in seeking approval for the drug around the world. Similarly, the organization criticizes GlaxoSmithKline PLC. for charging a high price—now roughly $625 a year—in the developing world for its drug Ziagen. Abbott says it is working "as quickly as possible" to get the new version of Kaletra to developing-world patients. Glaxo, meanwhile, notes that it recently cut the price of Ziagen by 28%.
Gilead officials admit many mistakes in conceiving their access program, although they deny slowing its implementation. Gilead research chief Norbert Bischofberger says he was surprised at the reception to the Viread program in many developing nations. "We were under the assumption that, 'We're giving you the drug at no profit, selling it at no cost, and you should be happy to receive it,' " he says. "We found it's not how it works in these countries."