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International News
HIV Drugs for Africa Diverted to Europe

October 3, 2002

Nearly $18 million worth of reduced-price HIV drugs intended for impoverished Africans have been intercepted by profiteers and shipped back to Europe to be sold at marked-up prices, according to a current investigation. As a result, nearly a quarter of the supply of the antiretroviral drug Combivir intended for African HIV/AIDS patients has not reached them in the last year, said the drug's manufacturer, GlaxoSmithKline.

Instead, it and two other Glaxo HIV drugs were sold in Germany, the Netherlands, Britain and Switzerland by European wholesalers now being investigated. Some of the drugs were shipped from a Glaxo factory in France and arrived in Africa, but the cargo "never made it out of the airport before it was turned back around by these wholesalers to Europe," said Raymond Salet, spokesperson for the Dutch health care inspector's office.

The scheme has been going on since at least July 2001 but was undetected by Glaxo and European regulators until this past July, when customs inspectors in Belgium noticed irregularities in a shipment sent from Senegal by one Dutch wholesaler to another. That discovery prompted authorities to search and seize a variety of shipping records and computer files that disclosed the wider scope of the problem.

Glaxo estimates that 28 shipments of Combivir, Epivir and Trizivir were diverted through July 2002, totaling close to 3 million doses. Those shipments, worth $18 million retail, moved from the five African countries through Paris and Brussels, then into Antwerp, where inspectors noticed discrepancies in July.

Glaxo plans to change its packaging and pill designs for the reduced-price HIV products it sells to developing countries, said Chris Viehbacher, Glaxo president of pharmaceuticals for Europe. He said Glaxo "is seriously concerned" about the illegal shipments, "but is this going to shake our commitment to the program? Not at this time. The human need it too big." Glaxo will press for stricter border controls and adherence to existing trade regulations, he said.

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