Brazil is to strip the patent on an Aids drug produced by the Swiss pharmaceutical giant, Roche, saying the medication is urgently needed by sufferers and that it does not have the funds to pay for it.
Brazil's health minister, Jose Serra, said on Wednesday that he would employ a clause in the country's 1997 intellectual property law which allows patents to be broken in cases of national emergency or when companies employ abusive pricing policies.
"After six month of negotiation and after exhausting all the possibilities for an agreement with Roche Laboratories, Brazil's Health Minister, Jose Serra, decided to break the patent on Nelfinavir, used to treat people with AIDS.
"Roche will continue to supply the drug until Dec. 2001, when the contract with the Health Ministry ends," the ministry said in an official statement.
It's the first time Brazil has stripped the patent on an anti-Aids medication, despite previous threats to do so. Brazil has the highest number of Aids victims in Latin America and distributes a "cocktail" of anti-Aids drugs free to sufferers. Last year, some 90,000 people received the drugs, which would have cost them up to $15,000 each.
Brazil says its drug handout programme has driven down the number of Aids deaths each year from 11,024 to 4,136 in just four years. The programme has been hailed by doctors as a model for other developing countries, where few can afford expensive treatment.
With new anti-AIDS drugs coming to market, the government said it might be necessary to employ compulsory licensing if drug companies did not move to lower costs.
Brazil spends about $88 million, or 28 percent of its $303 million anti-Aids budget, on Nelfinavir every year. About a quarter of Brazilian Aids patients use the drug.
Last week, scientists at the government's Farmanguinhos lab said they had successfully copied Nelfinavir and were subjecting it to equivalency tests expected to last three months.
According to the Health Ministry, the government will realize a 40 percent saving by making the drug at Farmanguinhos.
Roche was unavailable for comment.
swissinfo with agencies