Glaxo investing $97 million in AIDS drugs for Africa

LONDON (Reuters) - GlaxoSmithKline plans to invest up to 60 million pounds ($97 million) over 10 years to improve research, development and access to AIDS drugs in Africa, the world’s second biggest drugmaker said on Tuesday.

It has also agreed a new free voluntary licensing agreement for AIDS drug abacavir, or Ziagen, with South African generic drugmaker Aspen Pharmacare, in which it has a 16 percent stake. Aspen will manufacture a cheaper generic version of the drug.

The latest steps, announced by Glaxo Chief Executive Andrew Witty on a visit to Kenya, follow pressure from campaigners and some governments for drug companies to do more to get life-saving medicines to the poor, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Glaxo took a lead in February by promising to place many of its patents on drugs for tropical diseases into a free “pool,” but it stopped short of offering patents on medicines for HIV/AIDS, which it does not consider to be a neglected disease.

“Up until now I’ve not really seen the articulation of how a patent pool in this particular area (HIV/AIDS) would change things dramatically,” Witty told reporters in conference call.

“The patent pool on neglected diseases was because there was really no research going on in that area -- HIV is not a neglected disease.”

So far Glaxo is the only big drug company to have committed to pool some of drug patents, although it was joined in the initiative last week by U.S. biotech Alnylam Pharmaceuticals. Glaxo hopes others will follow suit. Its new investments will see up to 50 million pounds channeled into a fund to support non-governmental organizations working with pregnant women to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

A further 10 million pounds in seed funding will go to support public-private partnership work in developing AIDS medicines specifically for children.

($1=.6147 pounds)

Reporting by Ben Hirschler; Editing by Greg Mahlich