- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 25, 2004

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Patients’ advocates urged the government yesterday to intervene to reduce the cost of a popular AIDS drug.

Industry officials defended their pricing, and the author of a law being invoked to lower the price said it was never intended to be used to affect drug costs.

After Abbott Laboratories sharply increased the price of Norvir, the National Institutes of Health was petitioned to allow other companies to make and sell the drug in an effort to reduce its cost.

The government can take such action in rare cases of drugs that were at least partly developed using federal money.

James Love, president of Essential Innovations Inc., which brought the petition for Norvir, charged that the cost increase is an abuse of pricing practices.

And Robert Huff, of Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York, argued that because Norvir is used as a booster with many other AIDS drugs, Abbott raised the price in an effort to increase the cost of using other firms’ drugs.

The price increase “will inhibit innovation, restrict research, limit medical options and hurt people with HIV,” Mr. Huff said.

Dr. Jeffrey M. Leiden, president of the Pharmaceutical Products Group at Abbott, said at the NIH that despite the 400 percent increase from $1.71 per day to $8.57 per day last December, Norvir remains one of the least-expensive AIDS drugs.

The company needs to earn back the approximately $300 million it spent developing Norvir, he said. NIH provided a basic research grant for the drug of $3.5 million.

Ted Poehler of Johns Hopkins University, representing the American Association of Universities, said releasing Norvir to other manufacturers would introduce an element of uncertainty among researchers that could discourage development of new drugs.

And former Sen. Birch Bayh, who co-authored the law that would permit the government action, said his intent was not to have the government set prices.

His aim, Mr. Bayh said, had been to prevent a company from licensing a product and then holding off development of it to protect an existing product.

In rare cases, the federal Bayh-Dole law lets the government step in and grant licenses for other companies to make the products it helped finance. If the government should do that with Norvir, it would be the first time that had been done with a privately patented drug.

Mark L. Rohrbaugh, director of the NIH Office of Technology Transfer, and his deputy, Bonny Harbinger, listened to a series of witnesses on the topic. They will report on the meeting to NIH Director Elias Zerhouni, who will make the final decision.

Advocates for government action say that if the price increase were allowed to stand, it would set a precedent that other companies would follow.

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