JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ The U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has agreed to provide the drug Fluconazole free of charge to HIV and AIDS patients at government hospitals and clinics in South Africa, the health minister said Friday.

Pfizer and the government signed a memorandum of understanding Friday on the program, which Pfizer says will cost $48.6 million. The agreement was the culmination of eight months of negotiation, said Health Minister Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.

``The lack of equitable access to affordable drugs exposes the pitfalls in the world's trading systems,'' Tshabalala-Msimang said. He said ``this is a sore point between the major drug manufacturers, based largely in the developed countries, and the disproportionately affected and resource-constrained developing countries.''

The program will provide the anti-fungal medication Diflucan, generically known as Fluconazole, to AIDS patients and people infected with HIV. Diflucan is used to treat two forms of opportunistic HIV-related illnesses: cryptococcal meningitis and esophageal candidiasis, a fungal infection.

Cryptococcal meningitis is an infection of the brain which affects about 10 percent of AIDS patients. Esophageal candidiasis, a fungal infection of the throat, occurs in about 40 percent of AIDS sufferers. Up to 100,000 South Africans are thought to suffer from the two illnesses.

Pfizer has agreed to continue to provide treatment to patients who register for the program before it expires in December 2002, the health minister said.