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Oct 30, 2009

The Promise of Patent Pools for Access to Medicines-Cute Educational Animation

Often prices set by pharmaceutical companies are out of reach for developing countries. With a growing need for second-line treatment for millions of people living with HIV, how can access to currently expensive drugs be assured?
On 29 October, the UNAIDS Liaison Office to the European Union organized a roundtable to discuss UNITAID’s initiative to create a voluntary Patent Pool for AIDS medicines. The meeting brought together representatives of the European Commission, Médecins Sans Frontières, European AIDS Treatment Group and representatives from the pharmaceutical industry. UNITAID, an international drug purchase facility, has taken the first steps to create a voluntary patent pool for AIDS medicines for developing countries for the public good.

A patent is a form of ownership, intellectual property, which covers creations of the mind including inventions and pharmaceuticals. It acts as an incentive for companies to invest in research and development, knowing that with a monopoly in the market place, they stand a good chance of recouping their investment and making a profit.

Patents are regulated through the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property rights (TRIPS) together with the Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public health and other World Trade Organization key decisions.

HIV-related patents remain a controversial topic between AIDS activists and the major pharmaceutical companies; while drug prices have dropped dramatically, newer products – such as second line treatment - are still very expensive.

*Patent Pools – the solution? *
UNITAD argues that a patent pool could be one of the solutions to expand access to more appropriate and lower priced medicines in low- and middle-income countries. A patent pool is when patent rights held by different owners such as universities, pharmaceutical companies or government institutions, are brought together and made available on a non-exclusive basis.
Through this mechanism pharmaceutical producers could access a “one-stop-shop” for patents. In return producers would pay royalty to the patent holder. Such a pool could make it easier to produce new medicines that combine several pharmaceutical compounds patented by different companies into a single pill. These medicines, known as “fixed-dose combinations” are easier than multiple tablets for children and adults to take, promoting HIV treatment compliance and boosting treatment outcomes.
The patent pool could also make newer medicines more affordable and accessible in developing countries, through opening up for completion between different producers as well as producers not having to wait to the end of the patent term (usually 20years). The need for affordable HIV treatment will become more urgent as increasing numbers of people living with HIV fail their first-line therapy and need second-line treatments.

*Moving the Patent Pool agenda forward*
The purpose of the UNAIDS-hosted meeting was to present the creation of the patent pool to stakeholders. Discussions were broad-ranging and a constructive dialogue took place. Ellen ‘t Hoen who is Senior Intellectual Property and Medicines Patent Pool advisor with UNITAID gave an overview on the ongoing discussions between the pharmaceutical industries and UNITAID which include terms of license agreements.

Questions on how pharmaceuticals could effectively work with the patent pool were raised by Brendan Barnes, Director at the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries, indicating his members’ willingness to engage if adequate data on the functions of the patent pool is made available. Wim Vandevelde, Chair of the European Community Advisory Board of the European AIDS Treatment Group (EATG) welcomed the current scope of the patent pool including Middle Income countries and urged UNTAID to stand firm on this point in the negotiations with the patent holders. “We appreciate the cautious welcome from the pharmaceutical industry but we all know that the devil will be in the detail,” said Mr Vandevelde.

The meeting ended with a bold call from the EATG and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) who challenged pharmaceutical partners “to jump into the patent pool and get yourselves wet, in order to prevent millions of avoidable deaths.” “Newer, better antiretrovirals are already used by patients in the US and Europe, but aren’t available to people in developing countries... We need these newer drugs, with fewer side effects, to gradually replace older treatments,” said Michelle Childs, Director of Policy & Advocacy, MSF Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines. “By making these drugs more affordable, a patent pool will ensure the delivery of these newer drugs for people in the developing world.”

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