AIDS Activists Issue Grades to Drug CompaniesNelson Vergel
Merck won the highest grade and Abbott Laboratories flunked in a report card
being issued Thursday by a prominent group of AIDS treatment activists after
a yearlong study of the actions of nine major pharmaceutical companies to
address the contagion in the United States.
Although advances in drug regimens since the 1990s have added nearly 20
years to the average life expectancy of a person with H.I.V./AIDS, the
report card graded the drug makers overall with a below-average C-minus and
“There’s an opportunity now to kick it up a notch,” said Bob Huff,
antiretroviral treatment director of the Treatment Action Group in New York
and a board member of the rating group.
Twenty-one members of the AIDS Treatment Activists Coalition, a nonprofit
group formed in 2001, researched the drug companies, interviewed executives
and assigned grades assessing performance over the last quarter century, Mr.
Huff said. The companies were scored on research and development, pricing,
patient assistance programs, marketing, and community relations.
More than one million people in the United States are infected with the
human immunodeficiency virus, though only about half of them have been
discovered and treated, the government s ays. Untreated, H.I.V./AIDS leaves
people vulnerable to infections and cancers. While treatment reduces
symptoms and extends life, there is no cure.
The report gave its highest grade, a B, to Merck, for producing Isentress,
the first of a new class of AIDS drugs called integrase inhibitors. It also
praised Merck for freezing prices for lower income users. Isentress,
approved in 2007, is already used by 11 percent of the more than 550,000
people treated in the United States, Michael S. Seggev, a spokesman for
Merck, said Wednesday.
“We’re very pleased to have achieved the highest grade on the report card,”
he said. “They’re the most respected and most representative coalition of
H.I.V. community groups in the U.S., so their opinion is very meaningful.”
The group gave an F to Abbott for raising t he wholesale price of Norvir, the
first drug proved to increase survival in AIDS patients, by 400 percent in
2003. Norvir is a key ingredient in most AIDS treatment cocktails. The price
increaes provoked an outcry by many patients and others.
An Abbott spokesman, Dirk van Eeden, responded Wednesday, “The H.I.V.
community is an important stakeholder for us, so yes, we do take notice of
the comments they make.” He added, “We really believe we’ve discovered
important medicines and played our part in making sure the patients who need
it can get it.”
Other grades included a B for Tibotec Pharmaceuticals, owned by Johnson and
Johnson as a separate company focusing on infectious diseases; C-plus for
Pfizer, which announced in April a joint venture with GlaxoSmithKline to
spin off a company focused on H.I.V.; C-plus for Gilead Sciences; C-minus
grades for Bristol-Myers Squibb and GlaxoSmithKline, both criticized for
high prices; a D-plus for / f ont>Boehringer Ingelheim; and a D for Hoffman LaRoche,
which the coalition said has the most expensive drug on the market.
Representatives for Pfizer, Gilead and Boehringer responded Wednesday that
they valued the group’s opinion and continued their work in AIDS.
Bristol-Myers Squibb was “disappointed” and deserved a better grade, a
spokeswoman said. Other companies did not respond immediately to requests
The coalition was to some degree biting the hand that feeds it. It receives
all of its financing from drug companies, mostly for activists to travel to
meetings with them. The executive director, Edward T. Rewolinski, disclosed
specific amounts to The New York Times for the last two years. “None of our
members has the wherewithal to afford this activity,” he said.
“People like that would never be influenced by the flow of money,” Jennifer
Flynn, managing director of an unrelated AIDS group, Health GAP, in New
The top fund provider was Gilead with $100,000, followed by Pfizer, $63,000;
Bristol-Myers Squibb, $50,000; Tibotec, $45,000; Merck, $15,000; and
Boehringer, $5,000. Abbott gave no money.
Mr. Huff said the grading group was insulated from financing requests.
“There’s no sugarcoating,” he said. “The membership feels that the
pharmaceutical industry can be doing a much better job, whether it’s
innovation or pricing.”
The coalition was formed in 2001 partly to coordinate contacts with drug
companies instead of letting the industry decide whom to invite to meetings.