Page last updated at 15:30 GMT, Wednesday, 15 July 2009 16:30 UK

Drug firms 'must pool patents'

HIV drugs
Access to the more expensive drugs is still restricted

Drug firms must allow the generic production of their HIV medication if the deaths of millions of people are to be avoided, British MPs warn.

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Aids wants to see a patent pool in which firms would give up their rights in exchange for a royalty fee.

They describe a "treatment timebomb" in which the number of people with HIV will increase fivefold by 2030.

Growing resistance to basic drugs mean millions need more expensive ones.

"We are sitting on a treatment timebomb," said David Borrow, chair of the group of MPs who wrote the report.

"We must reduce the price of second-line medicines and less toxic first-line medicines before millions need them. We cannot sleepwalk into a situation where we can only afford to treat a tiny proportion of those infected."

Governments around the world, including the UK, have signed up to the goal of 'Universal Access to HIV treatment, prevention, care and support' by 2010.

But the report warns that the world is not on track to meet this target, noting that only a third of the 9m people who need it have access to HIV treatment.

Good will

The majority of people who are being treated in the developing world are treated with a combination of cheaper drugs which can have serious side effects. Because of this they are barely used in the West.

The pharmaceutical industry has an opportunity to act now to help prevent future human catastrophe
Mike Foster
International Development Minister

Three years ago, the World Health Organisation recommended a shift away from these medications to less toxic ones based on either Zidovudine or Tenofovir.

But these remain significantly pricier than the older ones: currently the Tenofovir-based combination is more than twice as expensive as the traditional combination.

This is despite the fact, the report notes, that a voluntary license scheme for this drug has allowed eleven different generic manufacturers - all in India - to produce it.

A much broader form of licensing is being proposed by Unitaid, the UN body on drugs for killer diseases.

This would involve drug firms voluntarily putting their patents into a single pool in return for a royalty. Manufacturers or researchers who wish to use the relevant patents are then able to do so for a fee.

International Development Minister, Mike Foster, said: "The simple fact is that the HIV epidemic continues to outstrip our best efforts. Five people are infected with HIV every minute and for every two people put on treatment, there are 5 people newly infected with HIV.

"The pharmaceutical industry has an opportunity to act now to help prevent future human catastrophe. It is time for them to state their clear commitment to make new HIV medicines affordable to those who need them most, by working with Unitaid to develop a patent pool"

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is cited by the report as saying it did not at present see the point of putting its HIV patents in a pool.

"For HIV, we believe that extensive research is already underway, and thus it is not a neglected disease. Millions of dollars are ploughed into research into HIV every year by the pharmaceutical industry.

"To improve access, we already have an extensive voluntary licensing programme for HIV across Sub Saharan Africa, involving eight licensees. These licensees are free to develop FDCs [Fixed-Dose Combination retovirals] and paediatric versions and we believe this is a much simpler approach than the creation of a patent pool."

Gilead, which makes Tenofovir, has said it is interested in the idea.

"We believe if structured appropriately, Unitaid's patent pool can play a critical role in expanding access to antiretroviral treatment for patients around the world by encouraging the development of new fixed-dose combinations and pediatric formulations, lowering prices, while respecting intellectual property," said the company's senior vice president Gregg Alton.

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