updated 6/25/2005 1:15:16 PM ET 2005-06-25T17:15:16

The government refused to intervene Wednesday against a rapid price increase for an important AIDS drug, deciding not to override patents on Norvir in an effort to force a lower price.

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Patient groups and some members of Congress had pushed the National Institutes of Health to take the unprecedented action, accusing the drugmaker of price gouging. But the NIH decided Wednesday that such an extraordinary step could have too broad an effect on the entire pharmaceutical market.

“The issue of drug pricing has global implications and, thus, is appropriately left for Congress to address legislatively,” concluded Dr. Elias Zerhouni, the NIH’s director.

Abbott Laboratories more than quadrupled Norvir’s price late last year, to $8.57 a day from $1.71.

But the impact was felt far beyond that one drug: Low doses of Norvir are used to boost the effects of other anti-HIV medicines, meaning patients taking a wide array of AIDS drug cocktails faced substantially higher bills.

The price hike came amid already vigorous debate about why Americans pay much more for most prescription drugs than do patients in Canada, Britain and other countries.

Initial research that led to Norvir’s discovery was financed in part by taxpayers, through a $3.5 million NIH grant. So the consumer group Essential Inventions petitioned the government to essentially override Abbott’s patents and grant licenses for other companies to make the medicine, too — presumably driving the price down.

A 24-year-old law gives the National Institutes of Health the right to do that, but the government has never invoked its so-called march-in rights.

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