HIV/AIDS public health program in Brazil
Zidovudine (AZT), one of the first drugs to treat HIV, was made free for all Brazilian patients in 1991. In 1996, when antiretroviral
treatments were developed, the drugs were offered for free to local patients, causing national AIDS mortality rates to decline,
as observed by the 1992 International Conference of AIDS. By 2002, figures from the Brazilian health ministry showed that
the drugs had helped to save more than 1.1 billion people by preventing deaths and hospitalisations.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines of 2010, the levels of treatment coverage in Brazil were more
typical of a developed country than a middle-income nation such as Brazil. Specialists, as well as WHO, say that Brazil's
program success is based on the fact that the country has produced various AIDS drugs locally. Currently 50% of the drugs
offered by the public health program are produced domestically.
Brazil has complied with the international Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) since 1996,
which limits the production of generic drugs that have been patented abroad. However, various generic drugs produced in Brazil
were patented before the agreement and can be legally copied (1).
In other cases, such as for atazanavir, Brazil has obtained the drugs internationally and was forced to put pressure on the
pharmaceutical companies to lower their prices. In order to force price drops, the country has used a clause found in the
TRIPS agreement, whereby "compulsory licenses" are given to developing countries, allowing them to produce generic versions
of drugs when the government considers it to be a public health emergency.
The government had never actually issued a "license" despite obtaining price reductions. However, in 2007, Brazilian President
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva announced that the country would issue a compulsory license for a drug named efavirenz, patented
by Merck. The decision received mixed reaction. AIDS activists supported the decision, while Merck, as well as other pharmaceutical
firms, said the move was unfair and could impact new investments in drug research and production in Brazil.
On the other hand, there is no doubt that the move has saved lives, while analysts say that the tactics have influenced the
market globally by increasing competition and driving costs down. A publicity poster released earlier by the health ministry
said, "Local manufacturing of many of the drugs used in the anti-AIDS cocktail permits Brazil to continue to control the spread
of AIDS. The drugs industry sees this as an act of war. We see it as an act of life."
Hellen Berger is a business writer based in São Paulo, Brazil.
1. S. Okie, New Engl J Med
354, 1977–1981 (2006).