U.S. President Joe Biden’s waiver of patent protections for U.S.-made COVID-19 drugs and vaccines is a historic milestone and a moral imperative. It is also an overdue acknowledgement of recent experiences. Contrary to prognostications from the pharmaceutical sector that side-stepping the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) component of the World Trade Organization (WTO) will mark the death knell of the drug industry, the world’s response to HIV/AIDS long ago demonstrated that patents stymie accessible treatment, cost lives, and offer little bona fide enhancement of innovation. There are challenges that lie ahead—but harm to pharmaceutical companies or future patients who will rely on their productivity do not count among them.
Consider what happened in the years after 1996, when a consortium of pharmaceutical companies took the unprecedented step of sharing their HIV/AIDS treatment data and manufacturing, resulting in a collaboration that was the turning point for what had been a catastrophically grim pandemic. By working together, the companies demonstrated that any one anti-HIV/AIDS drug, taken as monotherapy, would fail, possibly even hasten the pace of the disease process. But when taken in combinations of three or four drugs, made by usually rival companies, the antiviral assault was so powerful that people bounced back from the edge of death like the Biblical Lazarus who was resurrected by Jesus.
As millions of HIV positive people living in wealthy countries switched overnight from planning their funerals to building up retirement accounts, the miracle of combination antiviral therapy was denied to millions more living with AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa and other poorer regions. A battle unfolded, pitting a reluctant—even obstinate—pharmaceutical industry against AIDS activists, physicians, and political leaders from developing countries. In 2002, former U.S. President Bill Clinton intervened, using his bully pulpit in consultation with a team of academic experts convened by his philanthropic foundation to contrive a tech-transfer scheme that had Western pharmaceutical companies provide their patented drug formulas to Indian generic manufacturing companies, ultimately bringing down annual treatment costs from nearly $10,000 to less than $100.
Far from bringing chaos to the pharmaceutical industry and stifling innovation, the Clinton Foundation’s maneuver around the strict enforcement of intellectual property laws ushered in a dramatic era of HIV drug invention that improved the antiviral power of treatment, lowered drug side effects, developed new drug forms that are now taken to prevent infection, increased options for pediatric care, and greatly improved the methods for which HIV positive individuals could take their life-sparing treatments. Despite the loss of guaranteed patent protection and pressure to transfer technology to, primarily, Indian pharmaceutical companies, wealthy nations’ drug companies have profited and continue to innovate on the HIV/AIDS front. [Continue reading…]