Patents don’t limit access to AIDS drugs

Are patents on antiretroviral drugs impeding access to lifesaving treatment for the 25 million Africans infected with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)?

If a drug is not patented in a given country, one may freely manufacture, import and buy the brand-name drug or its generic equivalent. Activists blame patents for creating monopolies that keep these drugs inaccessible or unaffordable in poor countries.

But researchers say it is doubtful that patents are to blame for the lack of access to antiretroviral drug treatment in most African countries.

Researchers examined the patent status in 53 African countries of a total of 15 antiretroviral drugs patented by eight pharmaceutical companies.

  • They found that most antiretroviral drugs are patented in few African countries – half were patented in fewer than four countries – and among the subset of countries where one or more patents exist, the number of patented antiretroviral drugs is typically fewer than five.

  • The exceptions are South Africa, where 13 of 15 antiretroviral drugs are patented, and products made by Agouron, Boehringer Ingelheim and GlaxoSmithKline, which are patented in up to 37 of the 53 countries.

  • Overall, of 795 possible patents manufacturers could have sought (assuming all countries offer pharmaceutical patents, which is not true), only 172, or 21.6 percent, actually exist.

    There is no apparent correlation between access to antiretroviral treatment, which is uniformly poor across Africa, and patent status, which varies extensively by country and drug. Other factors, especially the ubiquitous poverty of African countries, must be more to blame.

    Currently, both brand name and generic antiretroviral drugs are available to poor countries at reduced prices, typically about 90 percent less than in the United States.

    Despite the discounts, without international financial assistance, few African countries can afford to purchase and deliver drug treatment.

    Source: Amir Attaran and Lee Gillespie-White, Do Patents for Antiretroviral Drugs Constrain Access to AIDS Treatment in Africa? Special Communication, Journal of the American Medical Association, October 17, 2001.

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    FMF Policy Bulletin\4 December 2001
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