GSK chief Garnier considers trialling Aids drugs in Africa

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GlaxoSmithKline, Europe's biggest drug maker, could trial Aids drugs in Africa after Jean-Pierre Garnier, the chief executive, came back from a fact-finding trip to the continent.

The company could use patient data gathered at GSK-funded clinics to help develop a new generation of medicines to combat the disease which is ravaging Africa.

Its Aids franchise is one of the most important to GSK, accounting for 7 per cent of the company's revenues. The moving of clinical trials to low-cost countries is moving up the agenda in Western pharmaceuticals companies as they struggle to cut costs.

Dr Garnier, whose trip to Ghana and South Africa this week took in an HIV clinic on the border of the Kruger National Park in South Africa, said he had found health volunteers doing extraordinary work in an area where 40 per cent of the population is infected. Such clinics were "a good setting for science", Dr Garnier said.

"What I found is that African patients, if they have accepted they have the disease - which is a big if - are more compliant [to their treatment regimes] than patients anywhere in the world."

The prospect of large Western pharmaceuticals companies trialling drugs in some of the most impoverished areas of the world will cause alarm in some quarters. A new film of the John Le Carré novel The Constant Gardener has raised the profile of the issue, its subject being the exploitation of African patients to test the safety of new drugs.

Dr Garnier ruled out testing novel Aids drugs in Africa, but said the company could learn a lot about dosing regimes. It can be useful if you are looking at how to make the drug work at its best, to see patients truly react to a drug. If you want a register of patients where you can collect reliable data from patients who are fully compliant, this is as good a place as any."

GSK has faced stinging criticism for its approach to Aids in Africa, with non-governmental organisations attacking the company for insisting on patents that block local manufacturers from producing copycat products. The furore reached its height in 2001 when GSK was leading a lawsuit against the South African government to protect intellectual property rights. GSK now supplies its anti-viral drugs at cost to African governments and health organisations.

Dr Garnier said the company had repaired relations in many quarters, and his own personal journey this week had given him hope. The Kruger clinic had been set up in an area he described as "a hell on earth, where the social structure and sense of community is disappearing fast, where there are so many orphans that people cannot take on more children and they are left to become sexual prey".

Even limited investment in modest clinics - "infrastructure-lite" - could have a big effect when combined with the professionalism of local health workers.