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Brazil to break patent, make AIDS drug

From Journalist Cristiana Mesquita

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (CNN) -- Brazil's government announced plans to break a patent for a drug used to treat AIDS and begin producing the medication by week's end, health ministry officials said Wednesday.

The decision to make the drug nelfinavir -- despite the international patent held by the drug's manufacturer, pharmaceutical giant Roche -- came after talks sputtered between the Brazilian federal government and the Swiss-based company.

In a statement, ministry officials said the country would issue a compulsory license to make the drug, and domestic production would begin Friday. The drug would not be distributed until early next year.

Nelfinavir is a protease inhibitor, which blocks the HIV virus from replicating itself and infecting new cells. It is often used with other drugs as part of a "drug cocktail" to combat the virus. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS.

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Federal officials said they were unsuccessful in talks with Roche to lower the prices the country paid for nelfinavir. Company officials could not be reached for comment.

The health ministry said the health ministry now spends $82 million per year on the nelfinavir, in sum using up 28 percent of its annual budget to treat AIDS patients.

In Brazil, those who suffer from AIDS receive free medication. The World Health Organization's latest figures estimate 540,000 people live with HIV and AIDS in the country.

Producing nelfinavir domestically, ministry officials said, could save Brazil 40 percent on its drug costs.

Brazil will honor its current contract with Roche, which runs through the end of 2001, before distributing the domestically produced brand early next year.

Similar negotiations with other large drug companies, such as Merck, have successfully reduced the prices of medications, the ministry said.

Brazil decision to reproduce AIDS drugs domestically -- and break patents in the process -- is not unprecedented. Earlier this year, the United States dropped a suit against Brazil before the World Trade Organization because of the country's practice of producing generic AIDS drugs.

The United Nations has praised Brazil's AIDS program and its guaranteed treatment for all those suffering from HIV and AIDS.

• Roche

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