A French-led international medicines programme will soon begin buying recently developed Aids drugs from low-cost generic manufacturers in a move that may trigger clashes with western pharmaceutical companies holding the patents.

Countries supporting Unit-aid, the drugs purchasing facility for the developing world proposed by President Jacques Chirac, have agreed to give top priority to purchasing paediatric and second-line anti-retroviral medicines for HIV patients.

That will include cut-price deals to be finalised later this year with Indian generic drugmakers, which could sharply cut prices on “second-line” therapies for patients who have developed resistance to older HIV drugs.

Unitaid, which plans to raise more than $400m (€312m, £210m) from donors during 2007, will also fund the pre-qualification work of the World Health Organisation, designed to verify the quality of generic manufacturers in the developing world, as well as buy modern drugs for malaria and tuberculosis.

Details of Unitaid, which will operate under the auspices of the WHO with a small secretariat and governing board, are due to be unveiled at the United Nations general assembly in New York in September.

The purchasing moves may spark fresh clashes with manufacturers, because the effort will benefit not only low-income countries but also middle-income ones with a high incidence of HIV such as Brazil.

Under current world trade rules, countries have the legal right to override normal patent protection in the event of health emergencies and issue compulsory licences to alternative low-cost producers, although the US government and pharmaceutical companies have lobbied to discourage them from doing so.

Brazil threatened to issue a compulsory licence last year against Abbott of the US, which produces the second-line therapy Kaletra, but agreed to a negotiated settlement that provided the drugs at a lower price in exchange for bulk purchases over six years.

One official advising Unit-aid said he believed generic deals would more than halve the price of Kaletra, and would go a long way towards providing second-line drugs to those who needed them in the developing world.

Unitaid representatives from Brazil, France, Chile, Norway and the UK met in London last month to finalise spending priorities and will gather again in Toronto next Monday.

The French are expected to raise $250m a year from an airline levy ranging between €1 per economy ticket within Europe and €40 ($51, £27) for a long-distance business ticket. Brazil, Chile and Norway have pledged a further $100m, while the size of UK funding is still under discussion.

Eighteen countries have expressed support in principle.

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