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15.07.2004 General News

Controversial AIDS Drug Tests On Ghanaian Prostitues

By AP

Activists Demand Halt SAN FRANCISCO -- Activists are demanding that San Francisco Bay Area biotech company Gilead Sciences Inc. halt its AIDS drug experiments involving prostitutes in Ghana and other developing nations.

Some activists and prostitutes disrupted a Gilead-sponsored seminar at an international AIDS conference in Bangkok on Tuesday where they publicly accused the Foster City-based company of exploiting prostitutes and providing them with poor education about preventing the disease.

Researchers in Africa and Cambodia are experimenting with the company's popular drug Viread to see if it can be used as a sort of AIDS "prevention pill."

The drug is already approved in the United States for use by people already infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Viread accounted for $193 million in sales for the first three months of the year, helping make Gilead one of the few profitable biotechnology companies in the world.

Earlier studies in monkeys suggested the drug was effective in protecting monkeys from getting the simian version of AIDS when injected with the virus. Now the company and outside researchers hope those results will translate to humans.

To find out, researchers armed with a combined $12 million in grants given by two U.S. government agencies and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have launched ethically complex human experiments among HIV-negative prostitutes at high risk of contracting the disease in Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria and Cambodia. Gilead is providing the drugs for free.

In Cambodia, for instance, some 960 women will ultimately be enrolled in an experiment bankrolled by a $2.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Half those volunteers in the Cambodia experiment will be given Viread, known generically as tenofovir, and the others will take a dummy pill with no medicinal value. A year later, researchers will compare the two groups to determine if significantly fewer volunteers taking Viread were infected with HIV than those receiving the dummy pill.

The protesters, led by AIDS activist group Act Up, accused the researchers of purposely providing insufficient prevention education to the volunteers because it needs infection data to analyze Viread's potential to protect against the virus.

What's more, the protestors demanded that the company take care of the lifetime medical needs of any of the volunteers who contract AIDS during the experiment.

Gilead's research chief Norbert Bischofberger said all the overseas experiments were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, even though U.S. approval wasn't needed and that all participants receive "extensive counseling."

Further, Bischofberger said the company isn't compelled to provide lifetime health coverage to the studies' participants because it expects the education provided during the experiments will mean fewer high-risk women will become infected than similarly situated prostitutes not participating in the experiments.

"Many more of these women would have become positive without the study," Bischofberger said.

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