Historic decision on access to medicines: UNITAID patent pool approved to lower prices for HIV treatment

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It is a rare thing to be so overwhelmed by one decision.

The decision, which certainly is an historic one, was taken this week at UNITAID, the public health financing mechanism. UNITAID was established to increase access for poor people to treatments for HIV and AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. Around 70% of its financial base comes from an innovative tax on airline tickets in eight of the organization's 29 member countries.

The UNITAID board decided this week to move forward in setting up a patent pool for HIV medicines. This has been in the pipeline for a while, but until now hasn’t had enough support from researchers and pharmaceutical companies to go ahead. This is great news because it will enable generic companies to produce fixed-dose combinations of HIV medicines for children and adults and thus significantly reduce the cost of medicines and also making drugs that are not there yet, available to poor people.

This decision will bring hope to the millions of people around the world who don't currently get the HIV medicines they need to stay alive. It also brings us one step closer to the day when treatment for HIV and AIDS will be universally available.

I cannot describe what an amazing move this is. I still do not believe it. Some companies are already on board, which is a great achievement. We need to push many other companies who are not yet supportive to join.

This achievement is the result of concerted work from many NGOs in the north and south, including Oxfam, over many years. So the moral of the story is that persistent collaborative hard work over a long time produces incredible results!

The voluntary initiative will ‘pool’ drug patents, allowing generic manufacturers to produce affordable versions of HIV drugs and to develop essential new fixed-dose combination and child-friendly drugs. In return the generic manufacturers pay a fair royalty payment to the originator pharmaceutical company. Worldwide only 42% of those in need of HIV treatment currently receive it; we believe that, whilst there are some details to be resolved, the pool will help to tackle this unacceptable situation.

Three potential benefits of the patent pool:

  1. More affordable medicines: By allowing different manufacturers to make needed products, the patent pool will encourage competition and bring down prices. This means that they will be available to more people.
  2. More appropriate medicines, easier to take: Treatment, especially for HIV, requires combinations of more than one medicine, which may be produced by different companies. Thus, if a company wants to develop such a combination, it has to enter into lengthy negotiations with the many patent-holders. A patent pool will enable companies to access all the patents in the 'pool' and to manufacture the new and improved treatment in return for a royalty payment.
  3. Pediatric HIV treatments: By bringing together different patents, the Pool will allow companies to work together to develop new medicines for children, which are currently badly needed.

We are hoping that by 2011, new drugs will be on their way to people.

And to top it off, members of the delegation who represent communities living with HIV on the UNITAID Executive Board, told me that because of my work and the passionate speech I made to celebrate this decision I should be part of their delegation! What an honor!

For more information on the patent pool see this great animation from the Stop AIDs Campaign.