Aids Organization sues drug company

By Gina Keating http://www.forbes.com/home_europe/newswire/2004/02/11/rtr1257515.html

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – The nation’s largest AIDS organization has sued Abbott Laboratories Inc. in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, claiming the pharmaceutical giant violated federal antitrust laws by hiking the price of a key “AIDS cocktail” drug by 400 percent in December.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, accuses Abbott of “monopolization, conspiracy to restrain trade and unfair competition” and asks a judge to roll back the price increase on the protease inhibitor Norvir.

Norvir, generically known as ritonavir, helps quell the HIV virus that causes AIDS and boosts effectiveness of other AIDS drugs.

AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which operates seven pharmacies as well as clinics in the United States, Africa and Central America, is one of the nation’s largest buyers of AIDS drugs, foundation president Michael Weinstein said.

The Dec. 4 price increase raised the daily cost of Norvir from $1.71 to $8.57 per patient, and quickly prompted outrage in the AIDS community, boycotts of Abbott drugs by AIDS doctors and probes by the New York and Illinois attorneys general.

The company has argued the price hike was long overdue, and said Norvir was still the lowest priced drug in its class.

Abbott spokeswoman Laureen Cassidy Wednesday said the company has not reviewed the lawsuit, but “has made tremendous efforts to insure no patient goes without this drug.”

“We have reviewed our pricing actions and Abbott has acted lawfully,” Cassidy said. “The recent pricing action for Norvir in no way limits access or choice to the full range of HIV therapies.”

Cassidy said public assistance programs such as Medicaid can buy Norvir at the old price, and anyone without public aid or private insurance can get Norvir for free.

Weinstein said the company’s price hike was intended to steer patients toward a cheaper Abbott AIDS drug called Kaletra in an effort to boost its market share. Cassidy denied the claim, adding that the company invests more than $1 billion annually on researching new drugs.

Weinstein called the lawsuit “the line in the sand for the AIDS community.”

“Drug assistance programs for the indigent are broke,” he said. “There are waiting lists in many states because prices have spiraled out of control. There is absolutely no justification for the prices that are being charged.”

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