Seven of the world's biggest pharmaceutical companies, including GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer, are in talks with a leading international workers' organisation that could result in HIV drugs being given free to some of the world's poorest nations.
The talks are being held between the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM) and the main producers of HIV drugs. Besides Pfizer, the world's largest drugs company, and Glaxo, they include US firms Bristol-Myers Squibb and Abbott Laboratories; Swiss-based Merck and Roche; and the family-owned German business Boehringer Ingelheim.
The talks got under way six months ago after a US-based consultant, acting for many of the pharmaceutical companies, approached the ICEM about supplying HIV drugs to poor countries where the virus is rampant. The aim is to provide individual patients with a tailor-made cocktail of anti-retroviral HIV drugs, either for free or at affordable prices. The talks are focused on sub-Saharan Africa and on those nations on the UN's list of the world's 49 least-developed countries.
The issue has been a controversial one, and many of the drug companies have been heavily criticised over their apparent refusal to provide affordable treatments. But the ICEM's general-secretary, Fred Higgs, is confident the talks will be successful.
"I'm optimistic that we will get a good result," said Mr Higgs. "I don't believe that, if the companies are serious, it will take us any longer than the end of the first quarter of next year for something beneficial to come out of it."
HIV and Aids have become a devastating problem for sub-Saharan Africa, where life expectancy has dropped to below 40 in some countries. The main problem is that the drugs are highly expensive and beyond the reach of the bulk of the population. HIV and Aids treatments are also protected by long patents, meaning cheaper generic versions are not currently available. Some pharmaceutical companies have stopped charging poorer countries for a variety of treatments, but these are mainly for the symptoms of Aids and do not include the crucial anti-retroviral drugs used in the treatment of HIV, which can significantly delay the onset of Aids. Many of the drugs companies do sell these at cheap rates, but the ICEM is keen to bring the prices down further under a single agreement with the producers.
The ICEM has 20 million members and 400 affiliated unions. It represents chemical workers in the pharmaceutical industry and in sectors hard hit by HIV, such as energy and mining in developing regions of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America. Said Mr Higgs: "We feel the ICEM is strategically positioned to make a difference."
A spokesman for Glaxo, which has already cut the price it charges developing countries for HIV drugs, said: "Our ambition is to provide our medicines on a not-for-cost basis both to countries and to employers in those countries."