Profiteers undermine preferential pricing and make millions diverting cheap drugs sent to Africa

Graham McKerrow, HIV i-Base

Shipments of cut-price anti-HIV drugs were diverted from Africa to Europe by unscrupulous importers organising a multi-million dollar scam that undermines efforts to treat people in poor countries.

GlaxoSmithKline sold Combivir (AZT and 3TC), Epivir (3TC) and Trizivir (AZT, 3TC and abacavir) to Senegal, Ivory Coast, the Republic of Congo, Togo and Guinea-Bissau at only 10% to 20% of the European prices. The 28 shipments would have sold for about $18m in Europe but were sold to Africa for about $3m, which GSK said was cost-price. Within three weeks of arriving at African airports, the drugs were back in Europe going via Paris and Brussels to Antwerp on their way to European pharmacies for sale at European prices. The products were mainly sold in Holland and Germany, but some were distributed in Britain and Switzerland.

GSK told this journal that the profiteers got away with the scam for several months before the authorities in Antwerp noticed discrepancies in July. They seized shipping records and computer files that revealed the scam, which involved two Dutch wholesalers. The Dutch government’s health care inspectorate and the Dutch police are expected to bring charges against a number of European traders in connection with the case.

“The batches are numbered and we now know they all went down to Africa. We will deliver to a wholesaler or airport named by a purchaser,” said Alan Chandler of GSK. He said the drugs were sent back to Europe before they even left the destination airports.

The drugs in question were mostly made in France and were in French packaging. The company is seeking permission from the European Medicines Evaluation Agency to have special packaging for preferentially priced drugs to make it harder to sell them in rich countries.

“As a company we are asking all the authorities, the regulatory authorities, customs etc, to be ever more vigilant in the handling of these products. We are asking people to be more vigilant in getting these drugs to people who need them. The people who lose out [from profiteers reimporting preferentially priced drugs] are poor people in Africa.

“However,” he said, “this hasn’t shaken our resolve to supply these drugs at preferential prices.”

The Dutch authorities have recalled all illegally distributed medicines to rule out any health risks.

Pharmaceutical companies long argued against preferential pricing for poor countries. One of their arguments was that it would be impossible to stop cheap drugs being hijacked and resold in rich countries at enormous profit for unscrupulous traders.


GSK tells the truth but is ingenuous when it says “the people who lose out” from scams to reimport preferentially priced drugs are poor Africans. Clearly such scams eat into the very considerable profits the pharmacos can make in rich countries. If all the drugs involved in this case were sold in Europe – and most were – it would have denied sales to GSK that would have given them $15m in profits.

“Defend the pharmaceutical companies’ profits!” may not be a popular slogan, but major pharmacos need to be encouraged to offer low-priced drugs to poor countries, just as generic manufacturers should also be encouraged. The more people selling drugs to the developing world, the cheaper they will become and so more people with HIV will be able to receive treatment.

Governmental and international authorities operating in rich and poor countries have to show they are as vigilant as the customs officers of Antwerp.

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