Seizure of drug shipment threatens ARV access

Dutch customs officials have seized a consignment of generic antiretroviral (ARV) drugs bound for Nigeria, raising the health risk to HIV-positive people in need of the life-prolonging medication.



Claiming that the drugs were counterfeit and violated patent rights, Dutch authorities seized the shipment at the end of February as it passed through Schipol Airport in Amsterdam en route to Nigeria, where the drugs were to be distributed by the Clinton Foundation, an implementing partner of the country's HIV/AIDS programme.



The Nigerian government insisted that the drugs were not counterfeit but rather second-line ARVs for patients who had developed resistance to first-line medicines.



Ibrahim Umoru, Chairman of the Lagos State Branch of Persons Living with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria (NEPWAN), confirmed that more and more HIV-positive Nigerians were in need of second-line treatment due to poor drug adherence and the lack of a standard ARV regimen by the country's various HIV/AIDS treatment partners.



"Increasingly, there are many positive persons who need second-line treatment, who will benefit from the seized drugs," he told IRIN/PlusNews. "The Dutch government should release them immediately and stop playing politics with people's lives."



Nigeria, like many countries in the developing world, relies on generic drugs, which are much more affordable than their brand-name equivalents, for the treatment of life-threatening diseases.



The shipment was funded by UNITAID, an international agency that purchases drugs and diagnostics for the treatment of HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis in developing countries.



In a statement on its website, UNITAID explained that the shipment did not contain counterfeit drugs but 49kg of abacavir sulfate tablets, a second-line ARV medicine manufactured by Indian pharmaceutical company Aurobindo, which has been pre-qualified by the World Health Organization.



"UNITAID is gravely concerned for the patients who are waiting for these urgently needed medicines," the statement read. "Interruption in HIV therapy is extremely dangerous and can cause resistance to the medicines. We therefore strongly urge the Dutch government to release the medicines so that they can reach patients as soon as possible."



Local and international health and human rights groups have also condemned the seizure and called on the Dutch government to immediately release the drug shipment.



In a joint statement, Oxfam International, Health Action International and Knowledge Ecology International described the seizure as "unacceptable" and urged the European Union to urgently review and modify its regulations governing generic medicines.



A 2001 declaration by the World Trade Organization stipulates that intellectual property rules should not interfere with the ability of developing countries to protect and promote public health, the statement noted.



A spokesperson for Nigeria's Ministry of Health, Niyi Ojuolape, said the Ministry was in discussions with the Clinton Foundation to determine how the seizure will affect the country's ARV drug supply chain.



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