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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

HIV Policy Change Lambasted

Itar-TassMikhail Zurabov's health ministry has recently been embroiled in scandals.
HIV activists are accusing the Health and Social Development Ministry of endangering the lives of tens of thousands of infected Russians by altering the list of anti-retroviral drugs the government plans to buy next year.

The activists say government officials surreptitiously replaced cheaper, more effective drugs with more expensive, less effective medications. A State Duma deputy has suggested that a backroom deal may be behind the changes.

In a Nov. 21 decree, the health ministry replaced some of the so-called first-line drugs -- for patients who have not been undergoing treatment for very long -- with third- and fourth-line drugs designed for patients who have had the virus for years and built up resistance to other medications.

Activists say this change will jeopardize the lives of the 30,000 HIV patients slated for treatment.

Curiously, the decree was issued quietly, months after health officials and activists from the Federal AIDS Center worked jointly on a standard therapy regime for HIV patients, said the center's head, Vadim Pokrovsky.

"I didn't even find out about it until three weeks after it was issued," Pokrovsky said Wednesday. "We worked closely with them on standards approved in August. It was clear that a bureaucrat with no understanding of medical treatment for people with HIV and AIDS issued this decree."

Adding an element of suspicion to the whole flap has been a reported upcoming government tender for HIV drugs. The head of the State Duma's anti-corruption committee has promised to investigate possible malfeasance at the health ministry, which has been engulfed in scandals in recent months.

Mikhail Grishankov, the anti-corruption committee chairman, told Kommersant he had reason to believe that the decree was issued "in the interest of specific companies." He did not elaborate.

One of the drugs at the heart of the dispute is the protease inhibitor darunavir, sold as Prezista, which was not among the drugs approved in August but suddenly appeared in last month's decree. AIDS experts consider the drug too expensive and ill-suited to Russian HIV patients.

According to the decree, the government plans to buy Prezista, which is produced in Russia by Makiz-Pharma, for an estimated 3,000 patients next year.

Makiz-Pharma spokesman Yury Boryan said late Wednesday that he was unaware of a government tender.

But he added that the company would "battle in a civilized fashion, and not like cave-dwellers, for the right to sign such a contract with the government."

The Community of People Living With HIV said in a statement that the decree would cost lives and money. "The tender for procurement of anti-retroviral drugs must not take place until a new standard is developed," the statement said.

Health Ministry officials did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Gennady Onishchenko, the country's chief epidemiologist, said earlier this month that more than 360,000 Russians are HIV-positive.

The health ministry has recently been mired in trouble. On Dec. 6, the State Pension Fund became the second agency overseen by the ministry to be raided by law enforcement agents in less than a month.

Following the raid, the Interior Ministry accused fund officials of colluding with employees of IBM and two other leading information technology firms to embezzle almost $40 million from federal coffers.