Health campaigners have called on universities in developed countries to sign a pledge that would give poor countries better access to medical technologies.
The Statement of Principles and Strategies for the Equitable Dissemination of Medical Technologies, was drawn up last month (November) and is sponsored by the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM).
It asks universities to ensure that the biotechnology companies that license their discoveries ease restrictions on using products such as vital drugs and vaccines.
For example, universities could file for, but not enforce, patent rights in certain countries, or forbid biotech companies from suing manufacturers that make generic drugs.
Tido von Schoen-Angerer, director of the Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), told SciDev.Net that more universities should endorse the pledge, and that the 12 signatories so far — all in the United States, such as Harvard and Yale — should act on their word.
"Promising is the first step. They now need to go further than that for the benefit of poor people's treatment," he said.
Ashley Stevens, president-elect of the AUTM and head of technology transfer at the University of Boston, another supporting institution, told Science that universities often give too much control over their technologies to the companies that license them.
The pledge has its roots in a controversy about Zerit, an anti-retroviral drug discovered by Yale University. Yale licensed the drug to pharmaceutical company Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS), which enforced patent rights in HIV/AIDS-ravaged South Africa. Yale said it had no power to force the company to allow generic versions of the drug, and only after a long battle did BMS agree not to sue generic manufacturers.
But the pledge is unlikely to have an effect for 10–15 years — the time it takes for many medical technologies to reach the market.
Debbie Collier, a law lecturer at the University of Cape Town, described the pledge as "a responsible move on the part of public centres of knowledge and invention that can be of benefit to developing countries".
But she added that obtaining agreement from biotechnology companies would mean that negotiations with them will become more complex. For example, the pledge has no specific legal language to use in future licences.
"The pledge acknowledges that a one-size-fits-all approach is not possible — each technology and even different developing countries may require different contract terms to have any benefit in particular circumstances," she said.
There would probably be only a minor loss of profits for biotech firms, she noted, as developing countries are not large markets for them — and in today's climate of corporate social responsibility, they would gain good publicity.