Major Victory for HIV/AIDS Activists:
Bristol-Myers Squibb Concedes Patents on Anti-Retrovirals in Africa

HIV/AIDS activists have won a major victory. Pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) has made an announcement which effectively admits that it does not have valid patents on its two anti-retroviral medicines, didanosine (ddi) and stavudine (d4t).

BMS also announced that it would reduce the combined price of these two medicines to US$1.00 per day, which the company claims is below cost. In October, TAC visited Thailand and discovered that the Government Pharmaceutical Organisation sells a daily dosage of d4t for approximately US$0.36. The BMS price in South Africa at that time was over US$3.00 per day.

The Consumer Project on Technology has consistently pointed out that both these medicines were researched and developed with public money, d4t by Yale University and ddi by the US National Institutes for Health (NIH). These medicines were licensed to BMS who have made exhorbitant profits on them. Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) estimated that BMS's profits on d4t between 1997 and 1999 were over US$1 billion. In the first quarter of 1999, BMS made $161 million from ddi. These super profits that have come at the expense of the lives of poor people around the world.

Activist Pressure Yields Justice

This victory has come about as a result of the global effort by HIV/AIDS activists. Yale University students have expressed their disgust at their University administration's role in AIDS profiteering. Activist groups such as the Consumer Project on Technology, Medicins Sans Frontieres, ACTUP, Oxfam and TAC have publicized BMS's unethical track record of patenting medicines developed with public money. In addition, TAC has submitted evidence to the Pretoria High Court in the case between the pharmaceutical industry and the South African Government which calls upon BMS to answer uncomfortable questions related to their patents on ddi and d4t.

The pressure has become too much for BMS and they are relenting.

Not Good Enough!

However, BMS's statement does not go far enough. They are only relinquishing "their" patents in Africa. TAC demands that they concede that they do not have valid patents on ddi and d4t anywhere, particularly in Asia, Latin and Central America. Alternatively, BMS, Yale and the NIH must state publicly that they will not apply legal pressure on any government or generic company wishing to make these medicines accessible. Even in the United States, BMS has never stuck to the fair pricing clause in their license contract. BMS also holds a patent on taxol, a medicine used for treating ovarian cancer in women and karposi sarcoma in people with AIDS. They must concede that their patent on this medicine is also unmerited, because it was developed using public money.

Furthermore, we call on the pharmaceutical industry to hand over their patents in developing countries on all essential medicines involved in the treatment of HIV/AIDS to the World Health Organisation (WHO). The WHO should then allocate licenses for the manufacture of generic versions of these medicines. As fair compensation, generic manufacturers should pay a 5% royalty on the sale of medicines to the original patent-holders, except for ddi, d4t, AZT, abacavir, lamivudine and all other medicines researched and developed predominantly with public money. TAC also calls on all governments to charge a 1% research and development levy on all generic medicines. This tax should be used to fund research into neglected diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria.

Withdraw from the Court Case

As a genuine gesture of good-will, BMS should withdraw from the court case against the South African government and stop any pressure on Thai government efforts to make these drug available.

Although BMS's concession and price reduction have come far too late, many people with HIV will now benefit from access to these life-saving medicines.

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