UNITAID Approves Patent Pool for AIDS Drugs

16 December 2009

The executive board of the drug-purchasing facility UNITAID has given a green light to the implementation of a patent pool meant to make critical AIDS drugs more widely available, and at lower prices, in the developing world.

The board announced on 14 December that UNITAID will provide US$ 4 million over the next year to get the new licensing agency up and running. The drug purchasing facility has also agreed to manage the initiative, which is to take effect around the middle of 2010.

"This is an historic day," said Philippe Douste-Blazy, Chair of UNITAID's Executive Board.  "UNITAID has now put in place a mechanism that will make medical advances work for the poor, while compensating companies for sharing their technology."

The new pool will serve as a commons in which patent holders will be able to licence their technology in exchange for royalties. The pool will thus allow generic companies to gain relatively cheap access to the protected information they need to make lower-cost versions of patented drugs. So far, UNITAID has identified 19 products from nine companies that it hopes to include in the pool.

Critically from a public health perspective, the patent pool is expected to facilitate the production of more affordable versions of fixed-dose combination (FDC) pills, drugs made up of several medications that are often produced by different companies. FDCs have proven to be critical to the safe and effective treatment of HIV/AIDS, UNITAID said in a statement.

But whether the pool will be effective in making lower-cost AIDS drugs available in developing countries largely hinges on the patent holders themselves. The new mechanism is voluntary, and it is not yet clear how many manufacturers of brand name drugs will choose to participate. But some observers are optimistic.

"We've had enormous interest from companies and political support from numerous constituencies around the globe," said Ellen ‘t Hoen, who is in charge of the patent pool for UNITAID.  "We're now ready to move to the next phase - reaching agreements with companies to get the drugs out."

Some in the public health community had feared that, under pressure from some major drug manufacturers, UNITAID would restrict the patent pool to only the poorest countries. But the drug purchasing facility made it clear in a statement released on Tuesday that the patent pool will be made available to "low- and middle-income countries" alike.

The notion of a patent pool has been in the works for more than seven years, according to James Love, Director of the NGO Knowledge Ecology International, an NGO that has participated actively in the patent pool discussions. The initiative has been debated within UNITAID since 2006.

"This is an important decision," said Michelle Childs, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Médecins Sans Frontières, "but the pool will be judged on its outcome for patients."

ICTSD reporting.

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