andrew jack, financial times: french-based “unitaid” creates pool of 19 HIV/AIDS meds for independent mfg, dist & pricing in developing nations (0102)

HIV pool adds to pressure on drug groups
By Andrew Jack in London
Published: December 15 2009

Nine western pharmaceutical companies face fresh pressure to ease control over their HIV medicines following the establishment of an international mechanism designed to increase treatment access in the developing world.

The board of Unitaid, the French-backed health funding agency, voted on Tuesday to create a “patent pool” to increase the freedom of rival companies to combine and sell almost 20 antiretroviral drugs to provide greater help to patients in poor countries.

Philippe Douste-Blazy, chairman of Unitaid’s executive board, said: “This is an historic day. Unitaid has now put in place a mechanism that will make medical advances work for the poor while compensating companies for sharing their technology.”

The pool details of which remain subject to debate – would allow low-cost generic drug companies in India and elsewhere to experiment with patented HIV medicines in order to create affordable “fixed dose combinations” and paediatric versions of the different drugs.

Western companies would agree to be paid a small royalty on their patents, but relinquish control over manufacturing, distribution and pricing in the countries to which the pool applies, limiting their revenues.

Unitaid is concentrating on putting into the pool 19 HIV medicines made byAbbott, Boehringer-Ingelheim, Bristol-Myers Squibb,  Gilead,  GlaxoSmithKline,  Merck,  Pfizer,  Roche and Tibotec, part of  Johnson & Johnson.

The aim is to encourage new formulations to meet demand in developing countries, where the commercial market has been insufficient to promote innovation by the patent holders. Developing country demand includes the need for combined pills, heat-stable medicines and drugs adapted for easy use by children.

While boosting total volumes of drug sales, the pool would also waive the patent holders’ legal rights to charge high prices for their drugs. Unitaid estimates the mechanism could save $1bn a year in medicine costs in the developing world.

Several drug companies have expressed support in principle for the pool but are wary about the details.

Some patent holders have indicated they are unwilling to take part in a pool that extends to richer emerging markets such as India, Brazil and Thailand. That is sparking tensions with the generic companies which say they will need the rights to sell the drugs in these markets in order to make a profit.

Gilead, the US company that has the largest market share of HIV medicines, said: “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.”

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