Political backlash hits HIV research

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The Independent Online

A string of fierce political and commercial battles has thrown the future of HIV research into doubt, leading drugs firms are warning.

In the wake of a year in which governments in South Africa, Brazil and other developing countries locked horns with the world's biggest drugs companies, large sections of the research community are turning their back on Aids-related projects, a uniquely sensitive area of medicine.

The HIV battle peaked last year when Thabo Mbeki's South Africa, buckling under its Aids crisis, announced it would allow generic copies of HIV drugs to infringe existing patents. In a reaction that many admit was terrible for their image, 39 major drug-makers tried to sue the Republic of South Africa.

A similar row bubbled over in Brazil, prompting Robert Hazlett, head pharmaceuticals analyst at Robertson Stephens, to say: "This is not going to be conducive to future Aids research."

Leading figures in the pharmaceutical industry, including sources at Roche, GlaxoSmithKline and Genentech, say those fears have been realised. The high-profile controversies have forced a range of smaller development centres to divert their efforts to treatments where there is less potential to run into political trouble, and where their investments will not plunge in value overnight under attack from generic copies licensed by desperate governments.

The fears relate to the huge cost of drug development. Research by America's Tufts Center for Drug Development found the industry-wide average cost for bringing a drug to market has risen to $800m (£550m). Some smaller firms find it impossible to justify the gamble.

Although the biggest pharmaceutical houses remain committed to HIV research, they are acutely aware of the fears in the industry. Increasingly, big drugs companies sniff around smaller ones with a view to a partnership or an outright purchase of a particular piece of research.

William Burns, head of Roche's pharmaceutical division, says: "We at Roche will continue to invest in HIV treatments, but if the world is going to address the HIV issue in developing countries, it needs committed governments. After the problems of last year, I have observed the industry move away from Aids research."

Sources within GlaxoSmithKline – a leader in the field of HIV research, and the original producer of AZT in 1986 – have seen a similar effect. The obligations and risks associated with producing Aids drugs are too much for some to handle.

A spokesman said: "Being a discoverer and supplier of HIV medicines has always brought unique responsibilities, but the devastating crisis in the developing world has only heightened them."