Namibian first ladies call for new HIV medicine

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Namibian first ladies call for new HIV medicine

NAMIBIAN first lady Sustjie Mbumba and former first lady Monica Geingos are among 300 world leaders, celebrities, scientists and activists who are calling for pharmaceutical giants, Gilead to share new HIV medicine with low-and middle-income countries. 

A statement by People’s Medicines Alliance, a global coalition of civil society organisations, leaders and experts campaigning for a more equitable health system, said the Namibian first ladies are also joining people living with HIV by putting pressure on Gilead to license a generic version of its new long-acting HIV medicine, Lenacapavir, so that people in low- and middle-income countries can access it. 

In their letter to Gilead CEO Daniel O’Day, they point to the “horror and shame” of the early years of the AIDS pandemic when “it took 10 years, and 12 million lives were lost before generic versions became available worldwide”. 

They urge O’Day to “shape history” by licensing generics, and helping to bring the AIDS pandemic to an end. 

Alongside the GileadForGood hashtag, Geingos posted on her social media pages on 30 May 2024, saying: “Every person matters in the fight against HIV/AIDS. I join over 300 signatories in urging Gilead Sciences to ensure Lenacapavir reaches the most vulnerable and affected populations. Access to this medication is crucial for saving lives”. 

The Namibian first ladies are joined by world leaders, including Dr Joyce Banda, former president of Malawi; Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former president of Liberia; Festus Mogae, former president of Botswana as well as former first ladies of Zambia, Malawi, Botswana and Mozambique. They are also joined by celebrities: Gillian Anderson, Stephen Fry and Sharon Stone as well as Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, the scientist who first discovered HIV. 

Lenacapavir is an injectable HIV medicine that only needs to be taken twice a year. 

It is, therefore, suitable for the hardest-to-reach communities. 

It could be lifesaving for people living with HIV, who face the greatest stigma, particularly LGBTQ+ people and women and girls. 

It could give them the safety and autonomy needed to live their lives free from violence and harassment. 

But, as things stand, people in low and middle-income countries will not be able to access the medicine. 

If and when Lenacapavir becomes available to prevent HIV, it could also be lifesaving for young women and girls in sub-Saharan Africa, who are most affected by HIV, with 3 100 young women and girls becoming infected with HIV every week in 2022. 

However, Gilead has not put in place any of the elements to ensure marginalised communities or young women and girls in low and middle-income countries can access the new medicine, the public figures warn. 

Campaigners are calling on Gilead to license generic versions of the medicine through the Unitaid-backed Medicines Patent Pool to ensure affordable treatments are available to people in low and middle-income countries. 

“You can shape history,” they say, as “by sharing the technology with the whole of the Global South, you will help save lives, prevent HIV infections, and advance the end of the world’s deadliest pandemic.” 

Gilead has previously licensed generics for other HIV medicines in some low-income countries, but leaders and experts want Gilead to go further with Lenacapavir by working with the Medicines Patent Pool, and enabling access for middle-income countries too, where the majority of the world’s poor live. 

Other campaigners include high-profile artists and activists, European former heads of state and government as well as some of the most respected figures in the global response to HIV. 

Barré-Sinoussi was awarded a Nobel prize for her work identifying HIV; Michel Kazatchkine led the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and Hakima Himmich founded the Association for the Fight Against AIDS. 

They stand alongside leaders of organisations such as the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/ AIDS, Doctors Without Borders, the International Association of Providers of AIDS Care, the UK National AIDS Trust, the Global Network of People Living with HIV, and leading academics pursuing the response to HIV. 

Among other statements delivered, Mogae said: “When I came to office, it would have been unthinkable to say that we could end the AIDS pandemic in our lifetimes. That goal is now within reach, but it will take courageous leadership from companies like Gilead. They have a chance to turn a page on the pharmaceutical industry’s deadly neglect of Africans living with HIV. 

“At this historic moment, I ask that Gilead act in the spirit of solidarity and human cooperation, and do what is necessary to help bring this awful pandemic to an end.” 

Monica Chakwera, the first lady of Malawi, said: “New long-acting HIV treatments are a source of hope, but there is no point in developing new medicines if they cannot reach the people whose lives they could save. Lenacapavir could be the answer for thousands of African women, men, girls and boys living with HIV, and all those who cannot safely access regular treatment without fear of violence or discrimination. 

As Gilead executives consider our request, they should know that the lives of many of these people hang in the balance.” 

The letter was organised by the People’s Medicine Alliance, a global coalition of civil society organisations, experts and public figures, which previously campaigned as the People’s Vaccine Alliance. 

The alliance, formed during the Covid-19 pandemic, has changed its name to reflect its broader role in fighting for access to medicines across diseases.