TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Novartis plans to sell medications for heart disease, diabetes and other non-infectious diseases for just $1 per month's supply in poor countries.
Drugmakers' charity programs have usually focused on infectious diseases and ones spread by parasites, including malaria, HIV and tuberculosis — diseases that have long been major killers in developing countries.
But chronic diseases related to lifestyle and genetics are becoming more common in developing countries, following the trend in wealthy nations, where heart disease and cancer are top killers.
In low- and middle-income countries, about 28 million people now die every year from heart disease, diabetes, respiratory disorders and cancers, according to the World Health Organization. That toll is expected to grow in the future.
So Novartis, the world's biggest drugmaker, said Thursday that it decided to focus its program on those diseases. Called Novartis Access, it includes 15 drugs for high blood pressure, chronic heart failure, cholesterol problems, diabetes, breast cancer, asthma and respiratory infections. The company expects that it will help many more patients get the medications included.
The Swiss drugmaker will start shipping the medications by year's end to government and charity health programs in Ethiopia, Kenya and Vietnam.
It likely will expand to more countries next year and ultimately could reach 25 to 40 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.
Even at the $1 per month price, Novartis Chairman Joerg Reinhardt said he thinks Novartis Access will be financially sustainable over the long term and could eventually cover all its costs, due to its large scale.
That's partly because Novartis is a top maker of generic drugs, through its Sandoz unit, and all but one of the drugs in the program is generic.
Drugs for Novartis Access will be made at existing Sandoz factories around the world and will have the same quality standard as its medicines sold elsewhere, Reinhardt said.
Big drugmakers routinely sell their medicines in poor countries at a significant discount to prices in developed countries. They also donate millions of dollars' worth of pills to developing countries, but typically focus on infectious diseases and distribute one medication in a number of countries or donate several needed drugs to one country.
"I don't think any other pharmaceutical company has ever done such a broad approach," Reinhardt said.
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