Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Cheap HIV drugs are more important than patents

Lara Santoro at the LA Times argued last week that Cheap HIV drugs are more important than patents.

"In January, the Thai government gave its domestic drug manufacturers carte blanche to effectively copy the formula for Abbot Laboratories' AIDS drug, Kaletra, and reproduce it in Thailand at a fraction of the cost.

A storm of protest ensued. The U.S. placed Thailand on a "priority watch list" of badly behaved countries. The European Union followed suit with a sharply worded letter from Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson lamenting Thailand's outrageous disregard for Abbot's intellectual property.

Yet, contrary to common perception, Thailand's move was, and remains, in perfect observance of international law...

Why, then, has the Thai government's attempt to acquire a lifesaving drug run into a wall of corporate indignation and government censure?

The standard answer is that pharmaceutical advances are based on the respect of intellectual property. Without the protective role of patents, the argument goes, drug makers would fail to recover their research-and-development costs and consequently shy away from pursuing new drugs.

The truth is that more than half of all antiretroviral drugs were researched entirely on U.S. government grants. Both lopinavir and ritonavir, the two antiretroviral agents in Kaletra, were researched with public money. "Heck, we paid for them," said James Love, director of the Washington-based Consumer Project on Technology.

The pharmaceutical industry lives in fear of a cheap-drug domino effect. Thailand's compulsory license could inspire the entire continent of Africa -- where 70% of the world's 40 million HIV/AIDS cases are found -- to issue licenses for a series of drugs.

Countries such as Kenya and Uganda, not to mention South Africa, have not only the manufacturing base needed to copy and reproduce drugs for a fraction of their cost, they also have the right. So what's stopping them? "There is a history of trade pressures," Love said. "Very few countries are willing to face such pressures."

Despite death on an unimaginable scale, talk of compulsory licensing remains anathema in most of Africa, so millions of lives are left in the hands of a well-meaning yet ineffectual group of international donors, whose solution to the problem has been to purchase and distribute generic AIDS drugs made in India and Brazil. It's a noble effort, but with pitiful results. Fifteen years after the invention of antiretrovirals, only one in four Africans has access to them."

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