WASHINGTON — The prohibitively high cost of AZT, the only drug licensed in this country to treat the deadly disease AIDS, will be reduced by 20% effective today, its manufacturer announced Monday.
Executives of Burroughs Wellcome Co. said that the cut resulted from savings in production costs. Depending on patient dosage and retail costs, the price has thus far ranged from $800 to $1,000 a month, making the drug unaffordable to many who have lost their jobs and health insurance because of AIDS.
Lower Manufacturing Costs
"We have always been optimistic about our ability to reduce the cost of manufacturing over time, and we hope patients may soon begin receiving the benefit of this new price," said T. E. Haigler Jr., president of the company.
AZT is not considered a cure for AIDS but has been effective in prolonging the lives of many patients with a deadly form of pneumonia or with AIDS-related complex, another form of the disease. It is currently being tested on individuals who are infected with the AIDS virus but who do not yet show symptoms of disease.
The firm said it has lowered the cost of AZT, which is sold under the name Retrovir, to wholesale distributors to $150.24 for a bottle of 100 100-milligram capsules from $187.80.
It was not clear whether the savings would be passed on to consumers by drug retailers. "We only establish one price. Beyond that point, we don't have any control," said Burroughs spokesman Kathy Bartlett, adding that no further price reductions are planned.
Homosexual rights groups and others--including the chairman of the presidential AIDS commission--applauded the move as "a step forward" but complained that AZT is still too expensive.
'It's Not Enough'
"It's welcome, but it's not enough," said Adm. James D. Watkins, chairman of the White House panel on the disease.
Jeff Levi, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, agreed. "It's a step forward but it doesn't address the fact that this drug still remains inaccessible to thousands who need it because of its cost," he said.
"I'm pleased that the price has come down, but the real question is whether people who need AZT can afford it yet," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health.
"Many AIDS patients have lost their insurance, and all Medicaid programs are not paying for AZT yet. For those people without health insurance, or in a state with a Medicaid program that doesn't pay for AZT even with this price cut, the drug is still unaffordable," Waxman added. Medi-Cal in California covers the entire cost of AZT.
Firm Defended Pricing
Burroughs Wellcome, which has been under attack for the high cost of AZT, has defended its pricing, saying that the cost of the drug is high because it has been expensive to produce. However, company executives have acknowledged that AZT may be short-lived in the marketplace, noting that it probably will be replaced by more effective therapies.
The original price for AZT, or azidothymidine, was established last February, one month before the Food and Drug Administration announced that it had approved the drug for marketing in this country.
"At that time, the drug had been in . . . development for less than a year, compared to the five or more years normally taken to reach this stage," the company said in a statement. "As a result, it was not possible fully to develop and scale up an efficient manufacturing process for this complex drug prior to launch."
Since then, the statement said, the company has made "substantial strides" in its ability to produce larger quantities of the drug at less cost and has expanded production capacity at its plants in Greenville, N. C., and Dartford, England.
19,000 Using Drug
AZT is licensed in 37 countries. An estimated 19,000 patients are being treated with the drug, including about 3,000 who are participating in about 40 clinical studies around the world.
In this country, AIDS has primarily afflicted homosexual and bisexual men and intravenous drug users and their sexual partners. As of Monday, 48,574 Americans had contracted AIDS, of whom 27,361 had died.