Shipments of low-cost Aids drugs which were intended to save the lives of thousands of impoverished Africans have been intercepted, flown back to Europe and sold at vast profits, it emerged yesterday (October 3).
At least US$18m worth of Combivir and other highly effective antiretroviral drugs made by the British company GlaxoSmithKline is believed to have been hijacked. The drugs were to be sold at significantly discounted prices to clinics in Senegal, Ivory Coast, the Republic of Congo, Togo and Guinea-Bissau under a scheme to offer some drugs at lower prices to poor countries agreed by Glaxo and four other drug companies with the World Health Organisation.
But about 3m doses of Combivir - a third of the supply - was diverted back to Europe by profiteering wholesalers as it arrived at the African airports or even earlier.
"There are indications that perhaps some of these batches never even left Europe," said Alan Chandler, a Glaxo spokesman.
The allegations of cynical profiteering by European traders have shocked activists who have been clamouring for more and cheaper Aids drugs for developing countries. At least 6 million HIV-positive people could benefit from the drugs and most of those will die without them.
The latest WHO figures show that only 27,000 have got access to the vital medicines through the two-year-old UN deal called Accelerated Access.
The drugs industry has argued that scams of this kind might happen if prices for expensive drugs were slashed in developing countries and there are fears that some companies may rethink their policy. But Glaxo, which has led the way on price cuts, says it will continue to supply the developing world cheaply.
"We're appalled and saddened to see these traders have been acting in this way, particularly because the victims of the trade are HIV and Aids patients in Africa," Mr Chandler said. "The only beneficiaries are the illegal operators."
The batch numbers of the drugs meant for Africa have been traced. From July last year, it appears they were bought by unsuspecting pharmacists in the Netherlands, Germany and probably the UK at the usual high prices. The Dutch authorities have recalled all batches of Combivir originally intended for Africa.
The diversion of such large quantities of drugs apparently went unnoticed for a year before customs officers in Belgium spotted discrepancies in a shipment sent from Senegal to a Dutch wholesaler which was passing medicines to a second Dutch wholesaler. Seized computer files and shipping records revealed the scale of the scam.
Some 28 shipments were diverted from African countries to Paris and Brussels, then moved to Antwerp, where the customs officers noticed something was amiss. The drugs then moved into the normal wholesale chain and were sold at European prices - up to £3.80 a tablet instead of the 50p Glaxo charges in Africa.
Lax controls and corruption at west African airports are also thought to be a factor. Customs officials, distributors and health ministries are under suspicion because none complained about the shortfall, suggesting sloppy inventory control or complicity.
"The airports tend to be fairly porous. I would think that this sort of corruption can happen without too much of a fuss," said John Tuma, a west African expert at the Institute of Security Studies in Pretoria.
Campaigners accept that this racket was destined to happen. "With such a huge price differential there will be a temptation for profiteering but the tragedy is that it will deny people in need of these drugs," said Jo Nickolls, a South Africa-based policy adviser at Oxfam.
Nathan Ford of Médecins sans Frontières in London called for measures to prevent reimportation such as altering labelling and packaging.
Jonathan Quick, head of the essential medicines division of the WHO, pointed out that one company, Novartis, has given its anti-malarial drug Coartem distinctive packaging in developing countries to differentiate it from the more expensive version, Riamet, which is given to westerners.
Mr Chandler said Glaxo was seeking approval from the regulatory authorities for new packaging. "One didn't think that people would be so evil as to feed this product back into the western world," he said.
The allegations have shocked activists who have been clamouring for more and cheaper Aids drugs for developing countries. At least 6 million HIV-positive people could benefit from the drugs and most of those will die without them.