Jean-Francois Dehecq, chairman of French-based drugs major Sanofi-aventis, has condemned generic drugmakers for manufacturing low-cost drugs in developing countries and then exporting them to rich nations, rather than making the generics available cheaply to poor people in their own countries.

It was a “scandal,” Mr Dehecq told the Financial Times, that firms in countries such as India, Indonesia and Thailand were paying their workers “three times nothing” in wages to produce the drugs and then exporting them to countries where people are able to pay for them. He accused the firms of exploiting their own people, adding: “They should deal with their own countries first.”

Mr Dehecq also defended research-based drugmakers against accusations that they charge too much for their products. These prices are essential to maintain innovation, he said, and claimed that industry estimates putting the cost of developing a new drug at around $1 billion were too low.

UK researchers offer “ethical pharmaceuticals”

Mr Dehecq’s comments coincided with news that two UK-based academic researchers have developed a way of bringing new drugs to market much more cheaply than is currently the case, enabling inexpensive treatments to be made available not only to patients in the Third World but also, potentially, in the world’s richest countries.

Sunil Shaunak, professor of infectious diseases at Imperial College, and Steve Brocchini of the London School of Pharmacy have produced a modified version of Roche’s hepatitis C treatment pegylated interferon, which they have reformulated to make it suitable for use in hot climates. Development work on the modified product has been supported by The Wellcome Trust and several UK government departments, and Imperial College holds its patent. The Indian government is to subsidise the product’s clinical trials and, if these prove successful, it will be manufactured by Indian drugmaker Shantha Biotechnics, which is based in Hyderabad. Drug trialling and manufacturing are significantly cheaper in India than in western countries and, if the drug succeeds in getting a license there, the Indian trial data could also be used to seek marketing approval for it in Europe.

Profs Shaunak and Brocchini are now working, in partnership with the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative, on a new version of US drugmaker Gilead Science’s AmBisome (amphotericin B) as a treatment for leishmaniasis suitable for use in hot and poor countries.

The issue for branded drugmakers is whether these “ethical pharmaceuticals” are, in fact, new drugs that do not infringe their patents on the originator products. If they do not, then cut-price versions could soon be used to treat millions of patients in both the world’s rich and poor nations.By Lynne Taylor