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Harvard drafts plan to get AIDS drugs to Africa

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A plan developed by more than 100 researchers at Harvard University seeks to boost the flow of AIDS drugs to Africa by enlisting drug companies and wealthy countries.

Under the plan, released Wednesday, drug companies would lower the price of the drugs and wealthy countries would contribute as much as $7 billion to help African countries pay for them.

The powerful drugs used in wealthy countries to control HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, can cost $20,000 a year per patient.

"An estimated 25 million Africans are infected with HIV," said Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, director of Harvard University's Center for International Development. "Of those, 3 (million) to 4 million have advanced disease. Of those, only about 10,000 wealthy people with HIV have access to these drugs."

Sachs said the two-pronged approach of drug companies lowering costs and wealthy governments contributing funds is necessary to ensure that those infected with the virus have access to the medicine.

"In 2001, the prices of medications have continued to fall rapidly," Sachs said. "Even though antiretroviral drug prices have declined to around $500 per year, this is still far above what poor countries can afford without donor assistance."

Dr. Bruce Walker, director of the Partners AIDS Research Center at Harvard, said the plan would require about $7 billion from rich countries. He said the United States should donate about one third of that, and Europe, Japan and Canada should pick up the rest.

Walker said it would cost Americans as much as $2 billion a year for the first few years, which he said is roughly $10 per American each year.

"The HIV epidemic is a global catastrophe," Walker said. "It is compounded by tremendous inequalities in care that must be dealt with now, not only for moral and ethical reasons, but also because of political, social and economic imperatives."

It is not enough for the pharmaceutical companies to reduce the price of their drugs, Sachs said. The drugs still cost between $300 and $1,000 a year, too high for poor countries.

Even African countries such as Nigeria, Tanzania or Ghana -- not among the poorest, such as Mozambique, or the richest, such as South Africa -- would have trouble affording the drugs. On average, those countries have public health budgets of $8 per person per year.

Amir Attaran, an economist from Harvard, said some would argue that those countries have other funds that they could use for AIDS drugs, but their highest gross domestic product per person is probably less than $500 per year. Putting all that money toward AIDS drugs would buy the cheapest drugs and leave no money for food, clothing, housing and other basic needs.

"We've waited 20 years, until we have 36 million infected in the world, before we've started to do something," Sachs said. "It's shocking how we've let this go on. And costs of intervening today are vastly greater than they would have been in the past and they'll be greater if we continue to dither on this."

Attaran echoed his comments. "I can't imagine how different the world would be if everyone had increased money when the disease was increasing, instead of cutting money," he said. "Tens of millions of lives will be lost because of this. The World Bank, USAID and every international group was asleep at the wheel."

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CDC - HIV/AIDS Fact Sheets
UNAIDS The Joint UN Program on HIV/AIDS

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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