Patents held by drugs companies are a big reason why more than nine million people in the developing world are not getting the HIV medicines they need. So the creation in July 2010 of the Medicines Patent Pool – which encourages the pharmaceutical giants to loosen their grip on licences so that cheaper, better and more accessible HIV medicines can be made – was seen as a key victory for common sense.
But, hold the party poppers, there’s a massive hitch. Some of the main players, notably Johnson & Johnson, are refusing to negotiate with the Pool, putting a huge number of lives at risk.
‘It seems Johnson & Johnson have decided that their own business interests are more important than the effect of joining the Pool could have on the health of millions of people around the world,’ says Diarmaid McDonald, spokesperson for the Stop AIDS Campaign.
Johnson & Johnson holds patents on three new HIV drugs that are desperately needed in the Global South. And, as some medicines are built from several patents from different sources, the company’s refusal to play ball means some cheap drugs can’t even be made with patents that have been licensed to the Pool by others.
‘None of the companies own all the patents for the fixed-dose combinations recommended by the World Health Organization,’ says Ellen ’t Hoen, executive director of the Pool. ‘So there is an awful lot of pressure on the companies that stay out.’
And even though joining the Pool would bring down the price of some HIV treatments from around $1,000 to less than $100 per patient per year, it would have little impact on the company’s profit margins.
‘When you look at the amount of Johnson & Johnson’s profit that comes from developing countries it really is small beans,’ says Diarmaid McDonald. ‘It’s just not going to affect their bottom line.’
The importance of companies adding their licences to the pool is greater than ever as people with HIV are becoming resistant to older treatments. The urgency is compounded by evidence that shows HIV treatments are an effective way of preventing the spread of the virus.
‘Recent studies have shown that people with HIV on antiretroviral treatments are 96 per cent less likely to pass on the virus,’ says Michelle Childs, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Médecins Sans Frontières’ Access Campaign. ‘This pushes the issue right up the political agenda, especially at a time when funding for HIV medicines is under extreme pressure.’
But with companies like Johnson & Johnson showing no signs of coming to the table any time soon, the Patent Pool is on shaky ground. Around 30 children die every hour as a result of AIDS. It is deeply ironic that a company trading on a ‘No more tears’ family-friendly image is not prepared to do more to help save children’s lives.