UK newspaper the Financial Times said yesterday that the world's number two drugmaker wants to make sure that HIV drugs intended for sale at cost in Africa and other AIDS hot spots around the world reach the patients who desperately need them.
GSK is planning to produce versions of Combivir and Epivir intended for its humanitarian access programmes that will look very different from the product it sells elsewhere.
By the end of the year, product supplied at cost will have a red coating to differentiate it from the more expensive white tablets, while GSK will also make use of anti-counterfeiting packaging and labelling technologies. The company did not return calls seeking more information on the nature of these technologies.
The pharmaceutical industry has long argued that parallel trade - in which a trader sources lower-priced products from one country and imports them for sale in another where prices are higher - damages its profitability, introduces a risk of mislabelling as goods are re-packaged and serves as an entry point for counterfeit drugs . Others disagree with this point of view, but in this case there seems to be evidence that diversion is occurring to the detriment of HIV patients in the developing world.
GSK has been in a long-running legal dispute with UK parallel trader Dowelhurst over allegations that the latter company knowingly supplied the National Health Service with HIV drugs originally destined for patients in Africa.
According to the FT report, GSK claims to provide around 40 per cent of humanitarian supplies of HIV drugs, and that up to a quarter of the drugs by volume were illegally diverted in 2002, the first full year of the programme. This proportion has reduced since then, according to the UK firm.