Patent pool party highlights lack of access to HIV drugs

Guest student blog by Harriet Gliddon, third year Biochemistry undergraduate, Imperial College London [harrietgliddon@googlemail.com]

Student campaigners promoting access to affordable HIV treatment held a National Day of Action on 30/03/11. In the small hours of a grey, chilly day in March fifty students from all over the UK gathered at the Restless Development offices in Westminster as part of a National Day of Action co-ordinated by the Student Stop AIDS Campaign.

The atmosphere was thick with excitement and anticipation, as beach balls and rubber rings were inflated and bikinis fitted. Why? For a pool party, of course. But this was no ordinary pool party; it was a patent pool party. After setting up outside the Johnson & Johnson UK headquarters (and lengthy negotiations with security), the pool party got started, with the Beach Boys and S Club 7 getting us in the mood for some pool party fun.

Along with partners from the US, we are currently calling on Johnson & Johnson to enter into negotiations with the UNITAID Medicines Patent Pool (MPP), so that HIV drugs like Darunavir (currently patented by Tibotec/Johnson & Johnson) can be made accessible to the people who need them.

10 million people worldwide are still without access to HIV medication. Paediatric formulations are in huge need of serious research, and the lack of affordability of existing drugs, particularly fixed-dose combinations, is crippling their supply to HIV patients in developing countries.

One solution to this is for those who hold patents to voluntarily sign them over to the MPP, which would then allow both researchers and generic producers access to the drug. This would mean that as well as companies being able to manufacture it for a fraction of the price, further research could be carried out on the product to make it child-friendly or appropriate for use in resource-limited and/or tropical climates. Meanwhile, the patent holders would receive fair loyalties in exchange. So instead of one company having a monopoly, multiple manufacturers would be able to produce a given drug, which would lead to competitive pricing and a huge fall in drug prices.

The importance of the MPP cannot be underestimated. However, in order for it to establish itself as a viable solution to the access to HIV medicines crisis it is essential that industry members agree to license their patents to the MPP. In December 2010, we urged GlaxoSmithKline/Viiv Healthcare to enter into talks with the MPP. While it is encouraging that Gilead Sciences, Sequoia Pharmaceuticals, Viiv Healthcare and the US National Institutes of Health are all currently in negotiations, other members of the pharmaceutical industry, including Abbot, Merck, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Johnson & Johnson/Tibotec, have so far declined invitations to enter into any such negotiations with the MPP.

It wasn’t all fun and games though. Diarmaid McDonald, the coordinator of the Stop AIDS Campaign, was permitted to enter the building (after some mild persuading of security). He managed to organise a meeting with representatives from Johnson & Johnson to discuss negotiating with the MPP. This was fantastic news and spurred us on to continue the rest of the day with as much energy and enthusiasm as we showed at the patent pool party!

Back in London, we were joined by another fifty or so students who had travelled from further afield. In the pouring rain, we staged a beautifully acted patent pool role-play on Oxford Street, with pills being prevented from joining the patent pool by pharmaceutical representatives.

During the afternoon, we turned our attention to certain provisions being laid down during the negotiations of the EU-India Free Trade Agreement. India is currently an incredibly important source of affordable HIV drugs for patients in developing countries. However, there are fears that India will give in to pressure from the European Commission and strengthen its patent laws, meaning that the production of affordable HIV antiretrovirals is under threat. Of particular concern is data exclusivity, which governs access to clinical trial data. If this was to be enforced, generic producers would no longer have access to clinical trial data and so would be forced to choose between waiting for another ten years or so, or running the clinical trials themselves. Clinical trials are notoriously expensive, and repeating them is deemed unethical because it would require a control group to be subjected to less effective drugs than are currently available.

There have been indications that pressure has come from the UK to enforce ‘TRIPS Plus’ (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) measures like data exclusivity. Whether this is to appease the pharmaceutical industry is a matter of debate, but it is essential that politicians are made aware of the consequences of these clauses. For this reason, many of us involved in the National Day of Action arranged to meet with our MPs and inform them of these critical negotiations. Most have responded positively and have agreed to take the matter further. We also campaigned outside the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and managed to arrange a meeting with the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, to urge him to ensure that data exclusivity is not included in the free trade agreement.

Despite achieving our lofty goals for the day, what really made it such a success was the bringing together of so many passionate, ambitious and open-minded students. This seems to happen far too rarely these days, and it is very easy to forget just how inspirational our own peers can be.

The Student Stop AIDS Campaign (SSAC) aims to stop the HIV/AIDS pandemic through promoting universal access to evidence-based prevention, ensuring long term and sustainable treatment and care whilst providing education to reduce stigma and discrimination. For more information, visit http://www.stopaidssocieties.org.uk/ or email lotti@restlessdevelopment.org.

Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM) promotes access to essential medicines in developing countries, research into neglected diseases and the empowerment of students worldwide. We are particularly interested in the way universities license health-related products to industry. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/uaemuk or www.uaem.org.

Harriet Gliddon

Harriet Gliddon is a third year Biochemistry undergraduate at Imperial College London, where she will be completing a PhD funded by the Medical Research Council in the next four years. Her research will focus on the molecular biology of infectious diseases, but she is also particularly interested in the translational aspects of medical research and access to medicines.

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One Response to Patent pool party highlights lack of access to HIV drugs

  1. Watchdoggie says:

    The patent pool is a great way to get medicines to people in need BUT it is one of many. Johnson & Johnson has agreements already in place with generic companies to provide profit-free medicines in countries that are home to 3 out of every 4 people living with HIV in the world. Ms. Gliddon should acknowledge this as she encourages companies to join the newly formed (and untried) pool.

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