A patent pool set up to ease poor countries' access to desperately needed HIV/AIDS drugs has received its first, high-profile member.
The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has become the first patent holder to join the Medicines Patent Pool, set up by UNITAID, an international health financing system created by Brazil, Chile, France, Norway and the United Kingdom in 2006 with the aim of finding a route for expensive drugs to reach the poor.
"This contribution is an acknowledgment of support for the patent pool," said Mark Rohrbaugh, head of the NIH Office of Technology Transfer.
Global health was highlighted by Francis Collins, the new director of the NIH appointed last year, as one of five 'themes' that would be given priority by his office. Earlier this month the NIH announced a series of medical education and research grants worth US$130 million in total to universities and health institutes in Sub-Saharan Africa.
But critics say that although this move sends a clear signal of support from the US government for open access to patents for life-saving drugs, the gesture will remain merely symbolic unless the pharmaceutical industry follows suit.
Ellen 't Hoen, head of the patent pool, told SciDev.Net: "It isn't just a licence from one of the most important investors in the development of HIV drugs, but it also comes with a very strong commitment from the US government to the Medicines Patent Pool."
But it will make "very little" difference in the short run, she said, because, to make the drug it relates to — darunavir — patents are also required from the pharmaceutical firm Tibotec.
In addition, HIV/AIDS requires a minimum of three drugs to be treated successfully and no single company holds intellectual property (IP) on any recommended HIV treatments.
"We have contacted all companies that hold relevant IP for HIV drugs and some of that looks very promising," she said. "We hope to have results within a year."
Katy Athersuch, medical innovation and access policy advisor for the humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines, said: "We are really excited by the NIH licence, mainly because it sends a strong political backing for the initiative and throws the challenge at the companies to really get on board and make this voluntary system work."
Brook Baker, spokesperson for the Health Global Access Project, a US-based nongovernmental organisation that campaigns for affordable global access to HIV/AIDS treatment, said that patent pools are not a perfect solution for the problem of inequitable drug access and that fundamental changes in the current system are needed to make it more efficient and equitable so the poor can have access to essential drugs as well.
"I think the current system is evidently broken, but it's a long political [battle] to prove that to the decisions makers."
NIH joined the patent pool last month (30 September).