New York — Pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline hold the future welfare of poor people living with HIV/AIDS in their hands, argues the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders, which is urging the companies to release their patents on specific HIV drugs into a collective pool that will increase access and affordability to treatment in developing countries.
Doctors Without Borders, also known as Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF), has launched a new e-mail campaign to pressure pharmaceutical companies to share their patent rights of certain antiretroviral HIV/AIDS drugs.
Ideally, the patents held by different companies on specific HIV drugs would be made available to other companies for both production and development. The companies that own the patent rights would in turn receive royalties by the companies or individuals that use their patents.
The impact is believed to be huge for those living with the disease, because a patent pool would make HIV drugs more readily available for distribution, and, more importantly, much more affordable.
This is because companies using the patents can then develop generic versions of these HIV drugs, as well as versions of the drug that can be taken once a day, instead of three times per day, for example. These types of dosage changes would greatly increase both the convenience and effectiveness of these drugs, MSF says.
Infant formulas may also become more readily available with a patent pool, a lifesaving tool that could be used to prevent high rates of death among the next generation.
According to Michael Sidibe, executive director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), the demand for affordable treatment is extremely high, and the number of people in need of these drugs is growing exponentially.
"The demand is high, as nearly 80 percent of the four million people on treatment globally live in Africa, but 80 percent of the drugs distributed in Africa come from abroad," he said.
UNITAD, the international drug-purchasing agency, will be at the forefront of the project, as it will be establishing the patent pool for these HIV drugs.
For the listed pharmaceutical companies, this is a unique opportunity for them to show that they have a humanitarian side, and that they are seriously committed to treating and preventing HIV/AIDS, advocates say.
According to MSF, some companies have expressed interest in taking part in the patent pool, but so far, no patents have actually been submitted to the pool.
"This opportunity comes at a crucial time," said Dr. Eric Goemaere, medical coordinator for MSF in South Africa. "Many patients in our programmes have developed resistance to their medicines and need to switch to newer, more effective drugs now. Because these are either unavailable or unaffordable, patients face a return to AIDS death row as treatment options dry up."
Sidibe stresses that this patent pool should not be the only initiative in place to help Africans get treatment. He says that the time has come for Africa to develop its own system of drug access that is both efficient and affordable since the primary problem for Africans is that they require expensive medicines that are mostly made abroad.
"Demand for AIDS treatment should become an opportunity for Africa to reform its pharmaceutical practices," said Sidibe. "Too often, drugs made in Africa are spurious or low quality. What Africa needs is a single African Drug Agency, similar to the European Medicines Agency, which regulates the pharmaceutical sector in Europe."
Margaret Chan, director of the World Health Organisation (WHO), also believes more needs to be done in order to increase access where prevention services often fail.
"At least five million people living with HIV still do not have access to life-prolonging treatment and care. Prevention services fail to reach many in need. Governments and international partners must accelerate their efforts to achieve universal access to treatment," she said in a statement.
The cost of HIV drugs is the main battle that MSF is trying to wage with this patent pool project. As numbers of people needing treatment in developing countries rises, increasing access to the drugs among vulnerable populations will be absolutely crucial.
"Ensuring equitable access will be one of our primary concerns and UNAIDS will continue to act as a voice for the voiceless, ensuring that marginalised groups and people most vulnerable to HIV infection have access to the services that are so vital to their wellbeing and to that of their families and communities," said Sidibe.
MSF's patent campaign is targeting Abbot Laboratories, Boehringer Ingelheim, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Johnson & Johnson, Gilead Sciences, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck & Co., Pfizer and Sequoia Pharmaceuticals.
The HIV drugs that MSF identified as being essential to this campaign were first recommended by the WHO for use in developing countries.