A group of HIV patients on Thursday protested outside the National AIDS Control Organization’s office in Delhi about the shortages of antiretroviral drugs required for their treatment.

Thirty to forty patients held placards stating that access to antiretroviral drugs was their right. They blamed the government for the delay in the procurement of the medicines.

Video credit: Hari Shankar

The National AIDS Control Organization, or NACO, is a central government agency that provides medicines, diagnostic kits and training to treat patients infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. The virus, if untreated, causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS.

In December 2021, NACO asked all states to procure certain drugs after it failed to choose a bidder and give purchase orders. Among crucial drugs that it failed to procure was dolutegravir, a relatively new medicine that reduces viral load rapidly. Other such drugs are lopinavir and ritonavir, which are used for first and second-line treatment.

An unidentified official from NACO told Scroll.in that the organisation issued a letter of intent on June 24 inviting companies to submit details of when drugs could be supplied. Under this process, it may take another two to three months for the supplies to come.

Some states have started asking patients to source dolutegravir and have agreed to reimburse bills. The NACO buys a single tablet of dolutegravir for Rs 6.67. The same tablet costs Rs 117 on the market.

Several states in the North East are unable to procure drugs at the rates at which NACO makes bulk purchases. In Manipur, the State Human Rights Commission issued a notice on June 11 to the State AIDS Control Society over a stock-out in multiple antiretroviral, or ART, centres.

Hari Shankar, who protested outside NACO on Thursday, said that the patients were forced to go to the government agency’s office after they failed to get medicines from ART centres. “Earlier we would get medicine stock for a month or two,” he said. “Now we get medicines for five to ten days. Sometimes there are no medicines at all at the ART centres.”

Shankar said ART centres in big hospitals like Safdarjung Hospital, All India Institute of Medical Sciences and Lala Lajpat Rai Hospital have started turning away patients due to the shortage.

In a two-part series (read here and here), Scroll.in had explained how the shortage became acute earlier this year, with ART centres asking patients to change their drug regimens due to the unavailability of stocks.

Manitosh Ghildiyal, a Greater Noida resident who is on a first-line drug regimen, said that the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital has also started turning away patients who require dolutegravir. “The stock that comes is irregular,” he said. “Sometimes they don’t have medicines for a week, sometimes for three to four days. We have to visit the centre daily for these crucial medicines. We had to come and protest here so that government hears us.”

Ghildiyal said that he wrote emails and made phone calls to NACO officials in the last few months, but received no response.

Delhi resident Jai Prakash, who requires abacavir, lamivudine and dolutegravir, said he had to use stocks of another HIV patient who had passed away. “I work with an NGO,” he said. “After a patient died, I had to use his stock to continue my medication. The government is least concerned about our life.”