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December 01, 2011
ICCR Calls on Drug Companies to Join Medicines Patent Pool
    by Robert Kropp

On World AIDS Day, members of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility reiterate their support for providing medicine to HIV-positive people in developing countries, and call on drug companies to do their part by joining the Medicines Patent Pool.

Today is World AIDS Day. It's a day on which to consider that despite scientific advances and laws protecting HIV-positive people from discrimination, there are still an estimated 33.3 million people worldwide who have the Human Immunodeficiency Virus.

Thirty years ago, when HIV was first recognized, receiving the diagnosis amounted to a death sentence. That it is no longer can be attributed in large part to the drugs that have been developed. Yet an estimated one-third of those who would benefit from lifelong treatment are not receiving it, many of whom live in Africa and developing countries elsewhere.

The Medicines Patent Pool (MPP) was created by UNITAID two years ago, to increase access to drugs for the tens of millions of people afflicted with HIV/AIDS in developing countries. Earlier this year, the organization announced its first licensing agreement, with Gilead Sciences, to improve access to treatment.

Members of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), who have been engaging with pharmaceutical companies to improve access to medicines for years, commemorated World AIDS Day with a statement calling on drug companies to "do their part to end the AIDS epidemic by joining the Patent Pool."

In the statement, Cathy Rowan of Trinity Health said, "When I was a lay missioner in Brazil 20 years ago, ministering to people with AIDS meant accompanying them to their deaths. Today’s medicines reduce the number of deaths and hospitalizations due to AIDS and have given millions new opportunities for their lives. It is incumbent on pharmaceutical companies to do everything within their power to make these medicines more affordable and more widely available."

MPP says it is in negotiations with six additional HIV patent holders—Boehringer Ingelheim, Bristol-Myers Squibb, F. Hoffman LaRoche, Sequoia Pharmaceuticals, the US National Institutes of Health, and ViiV Healthcare—to have them join Gilead Sciences in helping improve access.

According to MPP, "With the patent pool model, multiple patents are 'pooled' and licensed out by one entity, in order to cut down on transaction costs for all parties involved. In the case of medicines, this allows more affordable and more adapted versions of patented drugs to be produced as generics, long before their 20-year patent terms run out."

Generic drug producers MedChem and Aurobindo Pharma have also signed agreements with MPP to speed access to critical HIV medicines in developing countries, in particular to new medicines still in development.

ICCR members started addressing pharmaceuticals on the HIV pandemic in Africa in 2001. In July, when Gilead Sciences signed its agreement with MPP, Judy Byron of the Northwest Coalition for Responsible Investment (NWCRI), told, "There are about 16 million people with HIV who should be on treatment but are not, and within the next five years those numbers are only going to increase."

Ellen 't Hoen, Executive Director of MPP, said in a statemen t issued for World AIDS Day, "We call on the remaining three companies we have invited to the table—Abbott, Merck, and Johnson & Johnson—to also enter into negotiations with the Pool."

In its statement, ICCR echoed 't Hoen's call. Sr. Barbara Aires of the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth said, "Thirty years after it was first diagnosed, millions of people in developing countries are still sick and dying of AIDS. The need for affordable medicines to eradicate this scourge couldn’t be clearer. We want to encourage ViiV and BMS to achieve a successful conclusion to their negotiations and once again call upon the other companies we hold, such as J&J, Merck and Abbott, to begin negotiating with the MPP immediately."

In February, ICCR convened a roundtable in which institutional investors, pharmaceutical companies, and non-governmental health organizations from the US and Europe met to find "sustainable business models that allow pharmas to compete yet increase the availability of low cost alternatives in the countries hardest hit by life threatening pandemics."

"Effective strategies discussed included partnering with generic manufacturers to fulfill medicine needs, or partnering with civil society and government to accelerate neglected disease research, and exploring Base-of-The-Pyramid sales strategies," ICCR stated.

However, much work needs to be done, according to Lauren Compere of a Boston Common Asset Management.

"In the years ahead, pharmaceutical companies must find a balance between the desire to protect both profits and their valuable intellectual property and the moral mandate to support potentially viable delivery systems," she said. "Companies must rise to the challenge."

Another current area of concern, according to 't Hoen of MPP, is the resources of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, a funding mechanism that has committed $22.6 billion in 150 countries to support large-scale prevention, treatment and care programs.

"We are alarmed by the recent news that the Global Fund lacks the resources to launch its next funding round. Even having all HIV patents in the Pool means little if adequate funding to purchase treatments is not there," she said.

However, in a statement, Simon Bland of the Global Fund said, "The rumors of The Global Fund's demise are greatly exaggerated."

According to Bland, the Global Fund is prepared to disburse $10 billion between 2011 and 2013, $2 billion more than it had in its previous funding period.


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