UNAIDS has released a new policy brief to help countries make intellectual property rights work for them, amid growing concern that an impending free trade agreement between the European Union (EU) and India could threaten the world’s supply of generic antiretroviral (ARV) drugs.
The World Trade Organization’s Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) allows countries to override patents – for public health purposes – by issuing “compulsory licenses” that enable the generic manufacture of drugs still under patent.
The UNAIDS brief, published on 15 March, noted that few developing countries had exercised this right and cited a lack of capacity to deal with the complicated legal paperwork required. Nevertheless, the flexibility afforded by TRIPS has brought increased competition, helping to lower the cost of first-line generic ARVs by as much as 99 percent in the last decade.
Recent changes in World Health Organization (WHO) HIV treatment guidelines substituted stavudine, a cheaper ARV, for tenofovir, a more expensive one, making it even more important for countries to take advantage of TRIPS to keep treatment costs low and extend coverage.
The UNAIDS paper – co-authored by UNAIDS, WHO and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) – aims to help countries improve their access to generic ARVs by using TRIPS. It also provides successful case studies from countries like Thailand, Brazil and Rwanda, which have used TRIPS to negotiate lower ARV prices, and recommends that governments adapt their national legislative frameworks and develop a domestic pharmaceutical production capability.
African activists speak out
According to UNITAID, an international facility for purchasing ARVs, India manufacturers most of the generic ARVs used in low-and middle-income countries, but African activists maintain that ongoing free trade talks between the EU and India will limit access to these drugs.