Glaxo cuts AZT price for pregnant women in poor countries

LONDON (AP) — The maker of the AIDS drug AZT said Thursday it will slash the price for pregnant women in poor countries, an unprecedented move to make AIDS drugs more widely available in the Third World.
In a deal with U.N. health officials, Glaxo Wellcome PLC agreed to lower the price after research showed AZT can reduce by half the number of babies infected at birth by mothers carrying HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
With 550,000 babies born to HIV-positive mothers each year in developing countries, the move could save thousands of young lives.
“Clearly, this is an important step forward,” said Dr. Joseph Saba of the U.N. program on HIV/AIDS.
In the United States, where pregnant women with HIV are routinely given similar treatment, a full course of AZT might cost $1,000.
Glaxo Wellcome said the drugs for the Third World mothers might cost only a fifth of the Western price, although they will take the drugs for a shorter period.
Glaxo Wellcome would not say how the cheaper AZT sales would affect its earnings. But the company stands to make a profit since cutting-edge drugs tend to reap high financial rewards for pharmaceutical companies.
Glaxo Wellcome said it would offer similar steep discounts on Epivir, or 3TC, if it proves similarly effective in saving children from HIV.
“This move will bring new hope to HIV-infected people everywhere,” said Mark Harrington of the Treatment Action Group, a New York AIDS activist organization.
Although 90 percent of the world’s HIV patients are in the Third World, most cannot afford the best drugs.
In 1994, researchers found that giving AZT to pregnant women infected with HIV for several months prior to birth could reduce transmission of the virus to infants by two-thirds.
Two weeks ago, researchers in Thailand found that a shorter treatment — just three weeks of AZT pills given to women daily — reduced transmission by half.
That study was the key to Glaxo Wellcome’s decision, said Martin Sutton, a spokesman for the London-based drug company.