16 November 2011 – The exorbitant price of AIDS medicines, especially antiretrovirals, has been one of the main barriers to people with HIV accessing them, especially in developing countries. As activist organisations we have been at the forefront of many of the struggles to make medicines affordable.
A patent gives a pharmaceutical company the exclusive right to manufacture and market a medicine. The patent lasts for 20 years from the date of filing the patent application. Companies typically patent medicines that they develop, they buy patents from other companies or they enter into exclusive licensing arrangements with universities or small companies that have developed medicines but do not have the capacity to bring them to market.
The purpose of patents is to encourage research and development into new medicines. The problem is that patents ordinarily create monopoly conditions which allow companies to charge exorbitant prices. Over the last 15 years, some developing world governments and activists have battled pharmaceutical companies to reduce medicine prices. They have won many hard-fought concessions that have brought down the prices of life-saving drugs and allowed millions of people to go onto antiretroviral treatment. But new generation patented drugs that have fewer side effects, are easier to take or offer treatment alternatives to people resistant to current regimens, are mostly unaffordable. Yet they will soon be needed by millions of people. Furthermore, the struggles for lower medicine prices have to a large degree depended on country-specific laws and the capacity of activists in those countries to organise. Crucially, it is not sustainable to fight drug-by-drug, country-by-country for concessions from the pharmaceutical industry.
One of the initiatives that has resulted from these struggles is the Patent Pool . This is an initiative by activists and UNITAID  to negotiate concessions from the pharmaceutical companies on an international scale to license their products through the patent pool. Multiple generic producers will then be able to access these licenses, stimulating sufficient competition between generic producers to drive down prices. The pool also aims to spur the production of generic combinations of medicines, where patents on medicines are held by a number of different companies.
There is no guarantee the Patent Pool concept will work. It ultimately depends on pharmaceutical companies entering into voluntary agreements that dilute the monopolies that patents give them. Getting pharmaceutical companies to the negotiating table requires ongoing activist pressure and protests. It requires co-ordinated strategies to monitor prices and patents, pressure governments to use the powers they have under TRIPS  to license essential medicines and campaigns to expose profiteering from health.
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