High-profile figures urge pharma to lower price of ‘game-changing’ HIV prevention drug

Nobel laureates, business leaders, former prime ministers and celebrities have urged a British pharmaceutical company to lower the price of its breakthrough HIV drug and ensure it is not held back “out of reach” of the world’s poor.

In a letter signed by dozens of high-profile figures, including Sir Richard Branson, singer Olly Alexander, economist Joseph Stiglitz and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, pharmaceutical company ViiV Healthcare is praised for developing the first of a new type of HIV prevention drug.

But, the letter says, the “transformative effect” that the long-acting injectable cabotegravir (CAB-LA) could have on the global AIDS pandemic would be limited to high-income countries unless ViiV lowers the price. .

“If CAB-LA is not widely available and affordable, it will worsen the inequalities that both fuel the pandemic and are exacerbated by it. Access to life-saving science cannot and should not depend on the passport you hold or the money in your pocket,” the letter warns.

Among the signatories are also Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Unaids, Mo Ibrahim, the billionaire businessman, Joyce Banda, the former president of Malawi, actors David Oyelowo and Stephen Fry and singer Adam Lambert.

The World Health Organization estimates that more than two-thirds of people living with HIV are in Africa and that 460,000 people on the continent – 67% of the global total – died of HIV-related causes in 2020. Although mortality has fallen by almost 50% since 2010, the Covid pandemic has greatly disrupted services, diagnostics and care.

Approved in the US in December and in the UK the following month, cabotegravir is a long-acting injectable drug that only needs to be taken every few months, unlike the daily pills that characterize most pre-treatment prophylaxis regimens. exposure (PReP). .

It is proving to be one of the most effective methods of preventing HIV transmission and its ease of taking means it “could be a lifesaver for so many people, including young women who fear being stigmatized if seen taking HIV medication, gay and transgender people facing repression and homophobia, and sex workers who need better options,” the letter reads.

However, the drug is considered too expensive for low- and middle-income countries and donors. ViiV, a subsidiary of GSK based in Brentford, west London, entered voluntary license negotiations with the UN-backed Medicines Patent Pool in May and insists it is making “rapid” progress towards finalizing a deal that could see other manufacturers produce generic – and likely cheaper – versions of the drug.

But the global health community fears the process could take years, especially given the complexity of the drug, during which time it says many lives could be saved through “more equitable and affordable access”. to cabotegravir.

ViiV promised that until a generic is available, it will supply the drug “at a non-profit price for public programs in low-income, least developed countries and all countries in sub-Saharan Africa.” But fears remain that the non-profit price tag is still too high for much of the world.

“While many people in the North have access to long-acting HIV prevention tools and medicines, Africans are massively denied this opportunity,” said Lilian Mworeko, Regional Coordinator of the International Community of Women Living With HIV. HIV in East Africa (ICWEA).

“It’s worse for groups that continue to be left behind like adolescent girls and young women. As long as the price is unaffordable for our governments and donors, we will continue to be unable to access it. They are essential for preventing new HIV infections and could transform treatment. Our message is simple: all of our lives matter.

A GSK spokesperson said: “We have a strong track record of working with the global HIV community to achieve our shared goal of making our HIV medicines widely available around the world for those who could benefit from them, regardless of or their place of residence.

“We are committed to helping enable expanded access to our new drug, long-acting cabotegravir for PrEP, which we believe has the potential to be a game-changer in HIV prevention, and we are working quickly with partners to find solutions, including quickly finalizing a voluntary license agreement with the Medicines Patent Pool.

It is understood that a deal is imminent.

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