A patent pool is a mechanism whereby a number of patents held by different parties are brought together and are made available to others for production or further development. The patent holders receive royalties paid by those using the patents. The mechanism has been instrumental in promoting innovation in industries such as aeronautics and digital telecommunications.
"It’s a simple idea - companies share their knowledge in return for fair royalty payments," says Michelle Childs, Director of Policy & Advocacy at MSF’s Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines. "But it has the potential to transform companies’ approaches to access to HIV medicines and foster innovation in a way that marks an alternative to the confrontation and litigation of the past."
UNITAID, the international drug purchasing agency, is currently establishing a medicines patent pool for HIV drugs. Critical to its success will be the willingness of patent owners to participate by including their patent rights in the pool.
"The scheme is voluntary so companies have a choice, and today we’re asking them to make that choice," says Childs. "This is an opportunity for these drug companies to demonstrate that they are genuinely committed to effective measures that allow access to life-saving medicines for people with HIV in developing countries. Some companies have expressed interest in the idea, but we need them to go further and put key patents in the pool."
For people living with HIV/AIDS, the impact could be considerable. A patent pool could speed up the availability of more affordable versions of new medicines, as generic production could begin well before the 20-year patent terms expire. Currently, patent barriers can also prevent innovation such as new paediatric formulations or much-needed fixed-dose combinations.
"This opportunity comes at a crucial time," says Dr. Eric Goemaere, medical coordinator for MSF in South Africa. "Many patients in our programmes have developed resistance to their medicines and need to switch to newer more effective drugs now. Because these are either unavailable or unaffordable, patients face a return to AIDS death row as treatment options dry up."
MSF is launching an e-mail writing campaign calling on Abbott Laboratories, Boehringer Ingelheim, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Johnson & Johnson, Gilead Sciences, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck & Co, Pfizer and Sequoia Pharmaceuticals to meet the promise afforded by this mechanism and put their HIV drug patents in the pool. Most of the drugs that MSF identified to be essential for the pool based on its field experience are recommended by the World Health Organization for use in developing countries.