So the medicines patent pool scores its first triumph. UNITAID, the
Geneva-based organisation that aims to improve access to medicines in the
developing world, announced today that is has been given its first patents on
Aids drugs. We are on the way to the brave new world where the phenomenally
expensive but very effective HIV/Aids drugs taken by people in the USA and
Europe can be replicated by generic manufacturers in India, who can make
clever, dirt-cheap new combinations to keep more people alive in the poorest
regions of the planet. Or are we?
The first philanthropic donor is not a multinational drug company. It's the NIH
- the National Institutes of Health, which is the medical research
establishment of the US government. It holds quite a number of patents on the
inventions and discoveries of its scientists. It has now anounced it will
license its patent on darunavir, a drug in the protease inhibitor class of
medicines (one of the three drug classes needed for combination antiretroviral
therapy) to the pool. And it is going to look through its entire portfolio to
see what else might be useful.
All of that is excellent news. But in a way, it is no more than we should
expect from NIH. And unfortunately, it is not (yet) going to help people with
HIV infection in poor countries. NIH is not the sole patent holder on
darunavir. Additional patents are held by the drug company Tibotec, which is
owned by the US manufacturing giant Johnson & Johnson.
Tido von Schoen-Angerer, director of Medecins sans Frontier's campaign for
access to essential medicines, says the good part is that the NIH commitment
"demonstrates serious political backing" for the pool.
But this single patent isn't enough to allow a cheaper version of the medicine
to be produced. We need to build on this - the onus is on the drug companies
that own patents on this and other key Aids medicines to put their patents in
Tibotec must clearly be under pressure now to do the right thing, and hand over
its patents on darunavir too. And as Oxfam says, it is time for the leading
antiretroviral manufacturers to join them. They have in mind Viiv - which is an
alliance of GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer. This is Oxfam senior policy advisor
Mohga Kamal-Yanni's view:
One patent is not enough. Successful treatment of HIV requires a combination of
medicines, so companies need to step up to the plate and contribute their
Companies such as ViiV, that claim to be socially responsible while refusing to
cooperate with this initiative to make life-saving medicines available to poor
people are guilty of outrageous double standards. They now have no excuse for
not joining the pool.
(c) 2010 Guardian Newspapers Limited.