Huge mining firm to provide African employees with AIDS medications

Anglo American PLC, a London-based mining conglomerate that employs more than 160,000 workers in Africa, is planning to offer its African employees and their spouses anti-AIDS medications, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Plans are not yet finalized, but the company estimates that 20% of its sub-Saharan work force is HIV-positive and says it could treat more than 50,000 people.

The plan, which company officials estimate could cost $4.5 million in the first year alone, was approved “in principle” last November by the Anglo board and will be “formally consider[ed]” May 14 at a company meeting in London. If implemented, the plan would make Anglo, which owns a 53% stake in the world’s largest gold mining company, AngloGold Ltd., and a 32% stake in diamond giant De Beers, the largest company in sub-Saharan Africa to provide antiretroviral drugs to its employees. The Journal reports that companies in the region have been “profoundly affected” by HIV/AIDS, which is responsible for frequent absenteeism and higher medical costs.

Devising a plan

The company’s “highly autonomous divisions” will “devise their own treatment strategies.” Anglo’s main division will offer the medications through its “in-house” network of clinics and hospitals, a move designed to “minimize the growth of drug-resistant strains [of HIV] by making sure workers take the drugs properly,” while AngloGold has said it will first run a clinical trial with 1,000 employees through its medical research division to determine the costs and “feasibility” of a large-scale program. De Beers’ program, which is “furthest along,” will be managed by an outside medical firm, “partly to avoid the issue of whether the company would use test results to discriminate against workers.” Welcome Mboniso, an official with the South African National Union of Mineworkers, a group whose support is said to be “essential” to any program, has said the organization is “very sceptical” of HIV testing and “fears” that companies would use tests to discriminate against employees. Anglo “insists” it “does not and will not” use test results against employees, but the union has not yet approved the plan.

Dr. Peter Piot, director of UNAIDS, called Anglo’s plan “highly symbolic and highly practical,” adding that the private health networks Anglo will use are “in better shape” than the government’s public systems and will provide “one of the fastest ways” of supplying people in the developing world with antiretroviral drugs. Piot also said that the program could serve to debunk the idea that “antiretroviral drugs are impossible in Africa.”

Seeking access to generics

Anglo officials have met with officials from Cipla, the Indian generic drug manufacturer that has offered governments, not-for-profits and corporations in the developing world deep discounts on AIDS medications, about supplying the drugs for the program. Last month’s settlement of a lawsuit by 39 drug makers against South Africa’s generic manufacturing and importation law has “open[ed] the gates” for generic competition and lower drug prices.

Dr. Brian Brink, head of Anglo’s medical program, said that the company will consider applying for a compulsory license to import or manufacture generic drugs “in order to assure the lowest price” on the medications. Some advocates hope that Anglo’s decision will help persuade the South African government to provide antiretroviral medications to its citizens. But South African Health Department spokesperson Jo-Anne Collinge said that corporate programs are on a “much smaller” scale than any possible government effort and added that it is “false” to insist that “government must mirror what the private sector is doing” (Schoofs, Wall Street Journal, 5/7).

Source: Kaiser Daily Reports

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