It may be a classic case of AIDS activist David taking on Big-Pharma Goliath, but some advocates complain that this little David is too big for his britches. On July 1, the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) filed suit against GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), charging that the drug giant’s 1985 patent on AZT -- which guaranteed a 20-year monopoly and led to a trend-setting five-figure annual price -- was obtained through fraud. AHF also claimed that the prices of two other GSK HIV meds (3TC and abacavir) are illegally exorbitant.

AHF, a nonprofit managed care provider that specializes in HIV and is largely government funded, is seeking $66 million in damages -- three times what AHF claims it paid GSK for drugs over four years -- plus an injunction against further price-gouging and a ruling that the AZT patent is invalid, thus setting a legal precedent for generic marketing in the U.S. “Burroughs Wellcome [GSK’s predecessor] lied to the patent office about discovering AZT’s ability to treat AIDS,” said AHF prez Michael Weinstein, noting that it was the feds who first tested the drug for HIV. Calling the suit “entirely without merit,” Glaxo rep Patti Seif said the firm “categorically rejects” the fraud allegation. “It was Burroughs Wellcome that linked AZT with AIDS treatment,” she said.

But some activists question AHF’s go-it-alone strategy. “Lawsuits are an important part of winning drug access,” Health GAP’s Asia Russell said. “But why is Glaxo the only company whose prices and policies are being challenged?” Replies Weinstein: “GSK is the Enron of pharmaceuticals. Unlike its competitors, it has no major charitable program and charges twice as much for antiretrovirals in the developing world” -- charges Glaxo denied. In June, Glaxo was one of three pharmcos to announce a two-year U.S. price freeze on HIV meds.

Other activists, requesting anonymity, suggested this motivation for what they called a legally shaky suit: Glaxo’s rejection of AHF’s request for $20 million for its clinics in Africa. Attorney Michael Davis, who represented PWAs in an unsuccessful 1990 patent suit against the firm, put those chances at “somewhere between whistling in the wind and a credible claim.”