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December 22, 2011

Will Drugs IP Ever Change? Not if Johnson & Johnson Gets A Say

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

Last time I touched on this issue I noted that we still needed alternative strategies to manage IP around life-saving medicines. Doctors Without Borders/MSF has been working on a plan to try and break the logjam, called a "patent pool". The concept of the patent pool is simple: rather than asking any one pharma company to forego its profits while its competitors don't play along, the pool asks all companies with patents on relevant medicines to contribute their patents to licensing arrangements in the pool. The pool's managers license the patents as a portfolio, and distribute any returns to the companies that contributed.

So far so good. In this case, the MSF pool is focused on older HIV-treating medicines. Today's regimen for advanced HIV care involves a so-called "cocktail" of drugs. These drugs are often patented by separate companies so buying or licensing them is complex. Additionally, its hard to get patients to take all of a cocktail regularly and in the proper dosage. Care would be more effective if the cocktail could be administered as one pill containing all the relevant ingredients. But making such a pill requires licensing all the patented medicines. Enter the patent pool. Countries like India and Brazil have the large-scale high-quality manufacturing facilities to make single-dose medicines at the scale needed, if only they can get the license.

So MSF has been going to the patent owners asking them to contribute their patents to the pool. These are patents, generally, on older generation drugs, not the latest and greatest which remain out of price range even in a pool strategy. But even the older drugs would be life-saving for tens of thousands of people.

Which brings us to today's sad update from MSF. In this bulletin they note that despite two years of effort to get public pressure on, Johnson and Johnson have refused to allow their patents on three necessary older-generation AIDS drugs to be licensed through the pool. Merry Christmas, J&J. I hope you can sleep well, somehow, despite knowing how many people you're leaving to die.

(Usual full disclosure: I am a strong personal believer in the work MSF does and a regular, if minor, financial donor.)

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