HEALTH Minister Aaron Motsoaledi is optimistic that a new antiretroviral drug that South Africa is to roll out next year will enable the country to achieve its target of getting more HIV-positive people on treatment - and save R6 billion over the next six years.

The ARV, called dolutegravir, has fewer side-effects than current drugs and is safer, cheaper and more effective as HIV cannot develop resistance to it.

“This is a major breakthrough for South Africa, as it means we’re going to reach 6million people (with HIV) over the next six years and save R6bn,” Motsoaledi said.

Until recently, Dolutegravir has largely been used by HIV-positive patients in wealthy countries in Europe and the US and sold at unaffordable prices for middle- and low-income countries like South Africa.

Last Friday, Motsoaledi announced at the UN General Assembly in New York that a breakthrough pricing agreement had been reached to accelerate the availability of the first affordable, generic, single-pill HIV treatment drug.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates had earlier announced that manufacturers would scale up the drug at a capped price of $75 (R1013) a year. The drug is expected to be introduced in April.

Motsoaledi hailed the announcement as a breakthrough because South Africa had been advocating the rolling out of the drug as it has “superior therapeutic qualities to others we have".

“It’s cheaper and it is affordable, but most importantly it has far fewer side-effects, which means people tolerate it.

“One of the biggest problems about the intake of ARVs is that because people take them for life, they sometimes get tired (of using them). And when they get side-effects, they say, ‘let me take it for a month and rest’.

“When they do that, it’s dangerous because the disease develops resistance and it is no longer working. That’s the danger of discontinuity. But if the side-effects are lessened, compliance (intake) becomes higher.”

Rolling out the drug was particularly significant for South Africa as the country “has the biggest ARVs (supply) in the world”.

He said that the government had used this high volume as a bargaining tool.

“Anybody who is selling ARVs cannot easily survive in the international market without the participation of South Africa.

"No one can (thrive) because we account for the biggest.”

Motsoaledi was upbeat that the drug would also enable South Africa to achieve the UNAids target that 90% of people living with HIV should know their status, that 90% of them should be on ARVs and 90% of people on treatment should have suppressed viral loads.

“Currently, our concern is the increase in the number of infections happening in one group, which is girls and young women up to the age of 24.

“That’s where the virus is moving in an extreme way. If you can put as many of those (people) on treatment, then you cut that number.”