The majority of Chinese AIDS patients may soon be able to use a domestic version of a drug cocktail to treat their illness as domestic pharmaceutical firms began to produce cheap, generic anti-HIV medicines.
A Shanghai-based drug company said it has obtained approval from the State Drug Administration (SDA) to produce didanosine ( ddI) and stavudine (d4T), both launched by the pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb.
The company, Desano Biopharmaceutical Co. Ltd., has also filed an application for the production of zidovudine (AZT) and nevirapine (NVP). It expected the approval will come soon because the SDA has adopted the "priority review" policy for AIDS-related drugs, which means the approval process will be greatly shortened.
"With four drugs available, we can provide two drug combinations at an approximate price of approximately 3,000 yuan (US$360) per person per year, about one tenth of the cost of imported drug cocktails," Desano's chairman Li Jinliang told the press here Saturday.
The company said it would release an effective treatment for AIDS "in line with national policy and with what sufferers can afford." "It (the medication) will revolutionize the domestic AIDS drug market, opening doors of opportunity and offering hope where once there was none," the company said in a press release.
In China, where at least 850,000 people have been infected by the AIDS virus, only 300 to 500 AIDS patients are estimated to use the cocktail treatment composed of imported drugs, which became available over the last two years. Most patients, particularly those living in needy rural areas, can not afford imported medication, though the price has dropped to about 30,000 yuan (3,600 dollars) a year from 70,000 yuan (8, 430 US dollars) several years ago, said Prof. Cao Yunzhen with China's national AIDS prevention and control center. "Having domestic medicines is really a good news for us," Xiao Li, a Beijing patient, told Xinhua.
Li Jinliang said his company would began large-scale production within this year to meet the demands of 500,000 patients.
Desano is not the first Chinese company to produce generic AIDS drugs. The Northeast China Pharmaceutical Group Company was granted the first SDA permit to produce AZT in August. In addition, a dozen drug manufacturers have filed applications for the production of AZT, d4T or NVP, Li Jinliang noted.
Asked if the production might break patents on Western medicines, Zhang Junjie, a Desano manager, affirmed that there was no infringement of intellectual property rights involved.
AIDS experts hold it is a sign that China is acting more practically with the AIDS epidemic, which threatens to be a major disaster if no immediate measures are taken to control the disease. A China Daily report said on Friday that imported anti-AIDS drugs will become exempt from customs taxes in the near future.
Prof. Cao also urged the government to make further efforts in negotiations with major international AIDS drugs makers on price cuts so that more effective medicines will be available in China.
Besides the drug, anti-AIDS workers are now finding a new way to fight HIV/AIDS - showing educational films to the public. A 20-minute film explaining AIDS issues made its debut on Saturday, and will be distributed nationwide shortly. By using 3D animation and documentary materials, the film showed how the virus is transmitted and how to prevent it. Some information in the film, such as that hugging and handshaking cannot cause HIV infection, is still unknown to most Chinese.
"We want to use easy-to-understand language to tell people, especially those in rural areas, how vital it is to prevent HIV/ AIDS," said Wang Ke'an, director of the Thinktank Research Center for Health Development, a sponsor of the film, at the premiere ceremony.
(China Daily October 14, 2002)