Civil Society, Elected Officials Rally Behind UNITAID Patent Pool

December 14, 2009

William New
Intellectual Property Watch

This week’s consideration of an implementation plan for a medicines patent pool by the board of oversight body UNITAID stirred a stream of stakeholder letters from around the world. The board adopted the implementation plan today.

[Update: the UNITAID board today approved the plan, which will begin operating in mid-2010, according to a press release. UNITAID has identified 19 products for potential inclusion in the pool, and will be talking with companies to reach agreements to allow generics companies to get cheaper versions out.]

UNITAID, a drug purchasing facility, is in the process of implementing a patent pool for HIV/AIDS medicines, aimed at bringing lower priced needed medicines to developing countries. The UNITAID Executive Board is meeting on 14-15 December to discuss and approve the implementation plan (IPW, WHO, 11 December 2009).

An 11 December letter stating support for the patent pool was sent by US Representatives Henry Waxman and Barbara Lee, both California Democrats, to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and US Global AIDS Coordinator Eric Goosby. Waxman is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Their letter asked for more information about the US AIDS programme and its efforts to lower prices and increase accessibility of needed medicines. It also said of the UNITAID patent pool initiative:

”While the framework is still in its early stages, we believe it is a promising example of a way to promote drug access and innovation while appropriately protecting intellectual property rights and stimulating further research and development,” Waxman and Lee said. “The United States is not an official partner in UNITAID, but our programs and partner countries could benefit from the expanded availability a patent pool could provide.”

From India, a range of civil society groups such as the National Working Group on Patent Laws and the Centre for Trade and Development (Centad) sent a lengthy letter dated 11 December to the board urging greater transparency in the implementation plan process and consideration for India’s patent law provisions which prevent, among other things, evergreening of existing patents, patent oppositions, and the right to use compulsory licences. Other Indian concerns are the possible undermining of the 2016 deadline for least-developed countries to adopt the World Trade Organization Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), controlling generic competition, and lack of clarity on licensing terms and negotiations.

The Asia Pacific Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS also sent a letter to the board, dated 10 December, urged that the pool apply to middle-income developing countries such as Thailand, and that existing public health safeguards not be undermined.

Several of the civil society letters were posted to Knowledge Ecology International’s ip-health listserv. KEI president James Love responded to the Indian letter and others to defend UNITAID as having limited leverage, suggesting the voluntary pool could extend to medical technology, and suggesting an avoidance of the debate over whether a country can grant a patent in the first place as it is not related to the implementation plan.

Teaser image of pills (cc) by Rodrigo Senna.