Student Protesters Target Universities Profiting From Research on AIDS

April 12, 2001.

The University of Minnesota expects to collect more than $300 million in royalties from its patent on Ziagen, an AIDS drug sold by GlaxoSmithKline PLC. Amanda Swarr, a 28-year-old graduate student at the school, thinks that is outrageous.

"We are furious at the university's complicity in the denial of access to life-saving medication to poor people across the world," Ms. Swarr wrote in a leaflet that she proffered on a snowy street corner in Minneapolis during her spring break. "We are disgusted."

The fight over the price of AIDS drugs in developing nations has found a new battleground: the college campus. Students at the University of Minnesota are holding a teach-in Thursday, energized by the success that students at Yale University claimed for pressuring drug maker Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. to relinquish patent rights for an AIDS drug in South Africa. And student activists at other campuses are linking with outside activists in the AIDS cause.

Student protests are as old as formal education. What gives the AIDS protests extra leverage is that a few universities hold patents on key AIDS medications. Other schools' endowments hold stock in companies making AIDS drugs. The current wave of indignation, students say, comes from the sheer scope of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, where 25 million people are infected with HIV, the AIDS virus, and from the disparity of treatment between rich and poor, black and white. "It's the biggest political crisis of our generation," says graduate student Adam Taylor, a 25-year-old AIDS activist at Harvard University.

Seeds of the protest at the University of Minnesota were sown in October 1999, when the school won the largest settlement of a patent-infringement case of any U.S. university. GlaxoSmithKline agreed to pay the university royalties on world-wide sales of the AIDS drug Ziagen, which sells in the U.S. for about $3,898 for a year's supply. Minnesota argued that Ziagen was among several related drugs first patented in the 1980s by Robert Vince, a professor at the university's college of pharmacy, and then licensed to Glaxo. Since 1999, the university has received about $15 million in royalties -- profit deemed a symbol of academic greed by students like Ms. Swarr.

Ms. Swarr, whose field is women's studies, is a veteran protester. She has boycotted Nestle SA (for its pro-infant-formula policy), Philip Morris (for not pulling out of South Africa in the 1980s), Nike Inc. (for its labor practices) and Procter & Gamble Inc. (for animal testing), among others. She believes the university will bow to student demands. So far, however, the university doesn't seem much moved. Mark Rotenberg, general counsel at the university, says the school has no control over pricing. "I think the principal focus of concern about pricing should be on the pharmaceutical manufacturer and on the governments," he says.

Nancy Pekarek, a spokeswoman for GlaxoSmithKline, suggests that market and political forces have a far greater impact than student protests in determining prices and accessibility. For instance, she says the company applied for approval of Ziagen in South Africa in September 1998, but that country still has not acted on the application. "It's just sitting there, they haven't moved on it," she says. None of that deters Ms. Swarr, who recently returned from a year in South Africa, where she worked with AIDS activists from the global Treatment Action Campaign.

There are close ties between student activists and outside activists, and their work tends to reinforce each other. Activists at Yale -- where the student protests against AIDS-drug prices began -- were keyed up by a Feb. 14 letter sent to the university's Office for Cooperative Research by Doctors Without Borders, a humanitarian, not-for-profit group. The letter, drafted by activist Toby Kasper and signed by Eric Goemaere of Doctors Without Borders, asked Yale to use its patent on Zerit to pressure Bristol-Myers Squibb to lower the price of the medicine and release its patent rights in poor countries.

Amy Kapczynski, a first-year law student at Yale, knew of Mr. Kasper through friends at Harvard and heard about his plan to ask the administration for a license to distribute Zerit. Already working on AIDS issues, she figured she had found the perfect cause. At the same time, Yale graduate students were holding meetings to discuss the ethics of academic and industry licensing agreements. They, too, were looking for an example to rally around and found it in a Yale Daily News article about Zerit and the license with Bristol-Myers. By March 9, about 600 Yale students, faculty and researchers signed a petition demanding that Yale push Bristol-Myers to make the drug affordable.

On March 15, Bristol-Myers Squibb became the first drug company to announce it would relinquish patent rights for an AIDS drug in South Africa. A spokesman says the company was in talks with Yale before the protests began and the students played no role. Nevertheless, students and global AIDS activists are taking credit. Now they say they won't let up until they see evidence that Bristol-Myers actually does what it has said it would do. Last week, more than 200 students showed up for a teach-in on the New Haven campus.

In Minnesota, Ms. Swarr, spurred by the Yale protest, decided to take on her own administration. After seeing a March 12 article in the university's daily newspaper that mentioned the Ziagen patent, she contacted Zachie Achmat, a South African activist she knew. He put her in contact with the activists at Yale, who were then in the middle of their petition drive. Within a week, Ms. Swarr says, the students at Minnesota were in contact "with almost every major international nongovernmental organization working on issues of affordable HIV/AIDS treatment." Oxfam, an activist group based in the United Kingdom, weighed in with a March 28 letter to the university's president, Mark Yudof, asking that the school hand over its Ziagen patent to a public entity such as the World Health Organization and contribute a portion of past royalties to the WHO as well. The university hasn't responded to the letter.

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