A few weeks back, I posted a blog called Diving Into the Patent Pool, which reported on a Berkeley Law School meeting on patent pools (defined here by Médecins Sans Frontières). I mentioned that one of the key note speakers was Ellen ‘t Hoen, Senior IP Advisor At UNITAID, who is leading UNITAID’s effort to launch an HIV patent pool. The vision of this patent pool, she said at that meeting, is to “improve access to appropriate, affordable antiretrovirals in developing countries.”
In the new issue of Global Pulse, the open access international health journal of the American Medical Students Association, there’s a fascinating interview with ‘t Hoen, who was asked how the UNITAID patent pool differs from previous efforts to improve universal access to essential medicines. Here’s her response.
Well, the Patent Pool proposal originated very much within the Access to Medicines movement, which first taught people to understand how new intellectual property rules can empower us to bring down the prices for essential medicines in developing countries. We learned an enormous amount about AIDS drugs pricing practices, and in particular the power of generic manufacturers to provide essential medicines of quality at much lower costs. In the movement for universal access to essential medicines, it is becoming understood that pharmaceutical “patent packaging” is becoming more and more widespread, including in those countries that traditionally served as the “pharmacies” of the developing world – and unless we do something deliberate to find a solution, we will find ourselves back in the situation from 10 years ago, where anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) were priced very, very high, including in the poorest of countries, putting them out of reach of the vast majority of AIDS patients. This reality is at the root of the proposal by UNITAID to form an international “patent pool” for HIV/AIDS drugs. What the patent pool would do is while the pharmaceutical patent exists, it would allow generic manufacturers to nevertheless play a role in increasing the competition in the market in low-income countries, bringing the costs down. In addition, once you make these patents available to a pool, you also overcome the barriers that exist for the development of a fixed-dose combination of existing drugs, or the development of pediatric formulations. Today, if the patent owner is not interested in working on those, it can also prevent other companies form doing so. Through a patent pool, that will no longer be the case: for example, a researcher who wants to develop a fixed-dose ARV combination could do that by obtaining a license from the pool, and then pay royalties off the sales of the product to the patent owner. So it is a scheme that will work within the existing framework. Now with regard to important landmarks – I think in the last decade there have been two major processes. One, the 2001 adoption of the Doha Declaration of interest in public health at the World Trade Organization, which said that while respecting the rules on intellectual property laid down by the WTO, we have to also make sure that those are implemented with high regard for the need to protect the public’s health. Parallel to that, there has been very intense debate at the World Health Organization in the context of inter-governmental working group on public health innovation and intellectual property, where more concrete proposals were developed, including looking at patent pools for increasing both innovation and access. The UNITAID Patent Pool initiative is not taking place in isolation, but should be seen in context of those larger global debates. We began to realize that some of these rules [on intellectual property] really aren’t in the interest of people in developing countries, and that if there is no deliberate action to put some remedies in place, we would get back to quite a serious access problem.