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APRIL 23, 2004
Abbott Labs' decision to raise by 500 percent the price
of the AIDS drug Norvir underscores why the U.S. government
must allow cheaper drugs to be imported into this country.
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By MUBARAK DAHIR
government should stop the
special trade protectionism
it has for pharmaceutical
companies, and allow the
legal import of cheaper,
This issue has been a point of contention for years, for Americans with all
kinds of illnesses, ranging from cancer
patients to people with HIV and AIDS.
Now — finally — thanks to a particularly outrageous move by Abbott Laboratories
to raise the price of its AIDS drug, Norvir,
to 500 percent of its previous cost, this
issue is getting some serious consideration.
Typically, whenever consumers and
advocacy groups raise a stink and
demand they be allowed to legally import
drugs from Canada or Europe for a fraction of the price, there is a lot of government hand-wringing and more than just a
little sweating from the drug companies.
The federal government's claim that
Americans' health would be at risk because
it could not guarantee the safety of foreign-
imported drugs seems spurious. Are we
really supposed to believe that citizens of
Canada and Western Europe are putting
their health at risk for the cheaper drugs?
We import all kinds of products from
overseas, and they must undergo scrutiny
for safety before they can be sold here. It
seems unfathomable that the federal government couldn't devise regulations for
the safe import of foreign drugs.
The drug companies try to teU us that
they don't make huge profits from the drugs,
despite the often enormous cost difference
between those same drugs here and in foreign countries. They also say that a lot of the
money that is made off of existing drugs
gets put back into research and develop
ment, to work on discovering better drugs.
While both the arguments from the
drug companies and the federal govern
ment have a grain of truth, none is strong
enough to present unsolvable barriers to
aUowing more affordable imported drugs
into the United States.
THE MAIN REASON WE DON'T HAVE
cheaper, generic drugs in this country is
The recent debacle over the AIDS drug
Norvir illustrates why the government needs
to stop pampering pharmaceutical companies, and start standing up for patients.
Abbott Laboratories began marketing
Norvir in 1996. At the time, it was only the
second in a class of revolutionary drugs
known as protease inhibitors, which radically changed the course of medical treatment for people with HIV and AIDS.
In addition to the benefits of Norvir itself,
doctors soon discovered this drug had the
distinctive ability to enhance the benefits of
other protease inhibitors. So Norvir also
became widely used as a supplemental drug.
Norvir soon became an integral part of
the so-called "cocktail" of drugs that so
many people with HIV and AIDS take.
This made Norvir a huge success.
Since its introduction, the total sales of
Norvir have passed the $1 billion mark.
Usually, as a drug becomes more widely used and more profitable, its price goes
down, not up.
But in January, Abbott Laboratories
decided to raise the average price of the
drug, used by tens of thousands of
Americans with HIV and AIDS, from about
$1,500 per year, up to about $7,800 per year.
That means the same dose of the drug today
costs five times more than it did a year ago.
Compare the price here to the average
cost of the same exact drug in Europe. The
typical yearly cost of Norvir in Europe is
somewhere around $700 to $750. That
means Americans are now paying 10 times
more for Norvir than are Europeans.
THERE'S ANOTHER IMPORTANT
factor in the Norvir debacle, too. The ini
tial research and testing of the drug was
made possible by a federal grant to Abbott
Laboratories from the National Institutes
of Health. That federal grant money came
directly from taxpayers.
"The grant was critical in allowing us
to make the rapid progress that we made,"
Dr. John Erickson recently told the New
York Times. Erickson was the former
chief of Abbott Laboratories' drug
Taxpayer money subsidized Norvir.
which went on to be a huge profit-maker
for Abbott Laboratories, a company that
now is turning around and charging the
public exorbitantly high rates.
The fact that Norvir was developed with
the help of a federal grant is important for
another reason, too: Part of the fine print in
any such grant is that the government has
the right to insist on "reasonable" prices for
the discoveries made with its money
A five-time, overnight increase in the
cost of a billion-dollar, already-profitable
drug is hardly reasonable.
Activists are pressuring the government to use its leverage in the Norvir
case, and there is some evidence that at
least a few politicians are finally listening.
The Department of Health & Human
Services held a hearing Wednesday, April
14, on Norvir in particular, and on the
question of cheaper imported drugs in general. The National Institutes of Health is
also set to schedule hearings on the issues.
At least six members of the House
have signed a letter to petitioning
Tommy Thompson, Hush's health secretary, asking him to assert the right to
One bill has already been introduced in
the Senate to gradually allow imported
drugs from Canada, Europe and
Australia. And John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate,
has voiced his support of legalizing
Activists are also encouraging a boycott of Abbott drugs. While Abbott has a
monopoly on Norvir (and no one is suggesting that patients in need of the drug
stop taking it to make a political statement), consumers can express their (lis
pleasure with Abbott's pricing by purchasing other brands on drugs where
Abbott has competitors.
But in the long run, the solution to the
problem of unaffordable drugs is to allow
the import of foreign medicines. There's
nothing like competition to keep down
•M is editor of the
News in Fort
Lauderdale, Fla, a
paper affiliated with
Ihis publication. He
can be reached at