Merck Pharmaceuticals has been accused of of price-gouging its AIDS treatment Isentress by the largest US HIV/AIDS health care provider, which has banned the drug giant's sales reps from its clinics in protest.
"We've banned representatives from Merck Pharmaceuticals from calling on our physicians in our clinics, which is a common marketing strategy. We are instituting this ban largely because of the egregious pricing policies for their key AIDS drug, Isentress," Ged Kinslea, communications director for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), told AFP.
"The drug is a good drug, it has fewer side effects... but it is the single most expensive first-line anti-retroviral treatment for AIDS available in the United States and the developing world," said Kinslea.
An annual course of Isentress costs in the region of 12,870 dollars in the United States, according to AHF.
In Africa, the continent the worst-hit by the global AIDS pandemic, Isentress costs "about 1,100 US dollars per patient, per year and that's about 20 times more than other AIDS drugs in Africa," said Kinslea.
Isentress was brought to market in the United States in 2007 as a so-called salvage therapy drug -- a treatment for patients for whom other AIDS therapies have not worked or who only sought treatment in the late stages of illness, AHF said.
Last year, the US Food and Drug Administration approved Isentress as a first-line treatment for AIDS, "but the pricing remains at the expensive, salvage-therapy price," said Kinslea.
In the United States, salvage therapy patients account for between 50,000 and 80,000 of the 1.1 million people thought to be HIV positive.
Because the market for salvage therapy is just a fraction of the overall AIDS treatment market, pharmaceutical companies sell their last-chance drugs for a higher price than so-called first line treatments.
When Merck was contacted about the price-gouging accusations, a media representative referred AFP to a statement issued by the company two weeks ago.
In the statement, Merck said AHF's accusations were false, and insisted it had priced Isentress "responsibly ... after consultation with respected leaders in the HIV community."