Published: Monday 31 July 2000

The South African government has severely criticised an offer of Pfizer Incorporation, a pharmaceutical company, to supply a powerful and expensive drug called Diflucan free of cost. Diflucan is used to treat a deadly AIDS-related infection. According to government officials, the offer is too restrictive to be of much benefit to thousands of people who need the drug.

"Although the government greatly appreciates the donation and is intensely negotiating terms of the gift, it might reject the offer because the company is promising to provide the medicine for only two years," said the legal counsel to South Africa's health minister. Pfizer has also placed several conditions on who can use the drug, where patients must be treated, how they are diagnosed and how the drug will be distributed and how its use will be monitored (see 'In AID(s) of the dying; Down To Earth, Vol 9, No 3; June 30, 2000).

Since last year, AIDS activists have been demanding that Pfizer should reduce the price of Diflucan, the only medicine proven to treat cryptococcal meningitis, a brain disorder that can kill within months of infection. "We asked Pfizer to either reduce the price or allow South Africa to import the drug from generic drug makers," says Zackie Achmat, who heads the HIV & AIDS Treatment Action Campaign in Johannesburg.

Instead Pfizer surprised the South Africans by offering to give the drug away, albeit with restrictions. The company said it wanted the free supplies to be used to treat meningitis and should not be used to treat other common fungal infections.

In April, Pfizer officials meet Tsha-balala-Msimang, the health minister of South Africa to work out an accord on the issue. He told the company that if no agreement was reached by the end of June 2000, South Africa may end the discussions.

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