A group of AIDS doctors on Tuesday called for a boycott of drugs made by Abbott Laboratories Inc. to protest the company's recent price hike on an important HIV medicine.
Abbott in December raised the price of the drug Norvir, a key component of many AIDS-fighting cocktails, by 401 percent. The increase has generated "a never-before-seen level of outrage" among physicians, said Dr. Benjamin Young, an HIV specialist at Rose Medical Center in Denver.
"This is an unprecedented, unethical price increase," Young said in an interview.
About 200 physicians have agreed to boycott Abbott drugs in favor of alternatives whenever medically appropriate, Young said. Norvir has no equivalent, but physicians can find substitutes for other Abbott products, Young said.
"If there's an equal alternative, we will pursue that actively," Young said.
The doctors also have agreed to ban Abbott sales representatives from their offices and to refuse to participate in any new Abbott-sponsored clinical trials, until the company rescinds the price hike.
Abbott spokeswoman Laureen Cassidy said the doctors who had signed on to the boycott represented only a minority of the 6,000 U.S. physicians who treat AIDS patients.
Norvir, generically called ritonavir, helps quell the HIV virus that causes AIDS. It is unique in its drug class because it can boost effectiveness of other drugs.
Abbott raised the price for 100 milligrams of Norvir, the most common daily dose, to $8.57 from $1.71.
The company has argued the hike was long overdue given Norvir's benefits of enhancing other medicines.
"Norvir is still the lowest price" AIDS drug in its class, Cassidy said.
Plus, public assistance programs such as Medicaid can buy Norvir at the old price, and anyone without public aid or private insurance can get Norvir for free, she said.
Other critics said the price hike was likely to steer patients to another Abbott product, Kaletra, because it is cheaper than combining Norvir with other AIDS medicines.
The AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which operates HIV clinics in the United States, Africa and Central America, said Tuesday it was filing a lawsuit against Abbott accusing the company of antitrust violations.
Abbott's Cassidy said such charges were "completely without merit" and the lawsuit "jeopardizes the long-term interests of AIDS patients."
Two states also are probing whether Abbott is unfairly pricing the medication.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer both sent subpoenas to Abbott late last week, the company confirmed.
AIDS activists also have asked federal antitrust authorities to investigate the pricing.
Abbott denied the Norvir price hike was related to Kaletra. Cassidy said the company "is in compliance with competition laws."
Abbott shares fell 26 cents to close at $44.10 on the New York Stock Exchange.