On World AIDS Day, 15 organizations — including the Stop Aids Campaign, Médecins Sans Frontières, Unicef and Christian Aid — are calling on nine drug companies to join a patent pool being put together by Unitaid, which aims to improve access to drugs for HIV/Aids and other diseases in poor countries.
The patent pool would allow cheap copies and combinations of Aids drugs to be made without legal restraint or delays from the manufacturers, whose monopolies are protected for 20 years. A key issues to be resolved is which countries should benefit from medicines made under license from the pool. While Unitaid wants all developing countries to be included in the pool, some drug companies want to exclude certain countries from the pool.
Andrew Witty, the chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline, said that they have cut the prices of GSK drugs in poor countries to no more than a quarter of the level in the west and promised to reinvest 20% of profits on those drugs in the developing world. They have also launched their own patent pool, with more than 800 compounds and molecules that might be useful to researchers into neglected diseases.
Why we need a patent pool
Competition between different companies is the best way to make drugs more affordable. You can make sure competition happens by using the law to limit or overcome the barriers that stand in the way of generic competition; companies can also help build a new way to create drugs at affordable prices: by participating in the patent pool.
We need HIV drugs that will keep patients alive longer: Newer, better antiretrovirals are already used by patients in the US and Europe, but aren’t available to people in developing countries or are simply too expensive. We need these newer drugs, with fewer side effects, to gradually replace older treatments. Plus, as everyone on long-term treatment will eventually develop resistance to the drugs they are taking, all patients will at some point need to switch treatments, to newer drugs that continue to fight the HIV virus. By making these drugs more affordable, a patent pool will ensure the delivery of these newer drugs for people in the developing world.
We need three-in-one HIV drugs that are easier to take: Treating HIV is complex and often requires patients to take multiple drug cocktails. But by combining the different drugs into one easy-to-take pill, patients are more likely to stick to their treatment. At the moment, it’s a struggle for generic producers to develop these much needed fixed-dose combinations, because different companies own the patents of the various drugs. By putting these patents under collective management, a patent pool will make it possible for many more combination therapies to be developed.
We need HIV drugs for children: Two million children are living with HIV but less than 10 per cent of them have access to the medicines they need. All too often, there are no child formulations for drugs, as drug companies don’t have the incentive to develop them when the overwhelming majority of children in need live in developing countries. By putting HIV drug patents in the pool, we remove one of the barriers blocking the development of child formulated drugs and drug combinations.