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[NEW DELHI] A not-for-profit patent pool will be set up later this year to allow developing countries to manufacture cheaper HIV drugs.

The pool, to be based in Switzerland, is scheduled to start operating in June after formal approval by the executive board of UNITAID, the international drug purchase facility. The board met last month (5 February) to agree the broad guidelines to be followed while setting up the pool.

In a patent pool, patent-holding drug companies volunteer to forgo their patent rights in selected countries, which allows local companies to make medicines generically at mutually-agreed licence fees.

UNITAID — which procures cheap drugs for HIV, malaria and tuberculosis — has start-up funding of US$4 million for a year and officials expect that developing countries will save more than US$1 billion a year by having access to cheaper HIV drugs.

The February meeting took into account concerns raised by humanitarian groups, including the international medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and Indian public health organisations, in December 2009 that middle income countries, especially Brazil, China, India, Peru, South Africa and Thailand, would be barred from accessing the pool.

UNITAID allayed the fears, saying that both low and middle income countries would benefit.

Ellen 't Hoen, senior advisor at the UNITAID patent pool, told SciDev.Net that the February meeting also outlined the next legal and administrative steps needed to set up and operate the pool.

The board agreed to put in place technology transfer mechanisms, capacity building and local manufacturing in developing countries.  

The board also said it would try to ensure it worked in a way that was consistent with other multilateral mechanisms that provide access to medicines – such as the World Trade Organization declaration on the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement and public health; the World Intellectual Property Organization development agenda, and the WHO strategy on public health innovation and intellectual property.

Public health groups in India criticised UNITAID for publishing only a summary of its implementation plan. M. R. Santhosh, of the Centre for Trade and Development, a Delhi-based think tank, told SciDev.Net that he believed that UNITAID discussions had excluded public health groups in India.  

Link to special session on patent pool [601kB]