SOUTH AFRICA: Government is first to join major patent pool
The initiative could boost drug availability
Johannesburg, 12 May 2010 (IRIN) - A South African government agency has become the first to join the world's leading patent pool for neglected diseases, a move that could bolster home-grown innovations in the fight against diseases including tuberculosis (TB).
The Technology Innovation Agency
(TIA), a government body, recently announced that it had joined a patent pool established by pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline
(GSK) to spur research into 16 neglected tropical diseases.
The TIA's move means local researchers will have access to more than 2,300 existing patents as well as related knowledge on the diseases, including TB and malaria.
The patent pool - which aligns to US Food and Drug Administration definitions of neglected diseases and does not include antiretrovirals (ARVs), used to treat HIV - is a voluntary arrangement in which companies in the same sector, like pharmaceuticals, agree to share patented intellectual property and usually pay a royalty for access to drug formulations and research.
"If other companies in South Africa can come up with innovative ways in which they can use the information in the patent pool, then TIA will help them put plans together and implement [them]," said Dr Carl Montague, TIA's health portfolio manager.
iThemba Pharmaceuticals, a private South African drug company partly funded by TIA, signed on to the pool earlier this year to accelerate its own TB and malaria research, said company spokesperson Dr Chris Eldin.
Montague noted that there was a wealth of opportunity available to drug researchers, but "We have to ensure that the pool can be meaningfully exploited, and that we get access to the researchers who have the knowledge [of] the patents [that have been] generated," he told IRIN/PlusNews
"Having access to hundreds of patents is a daunting prospect and we need help in evaluating patents and selecting the best targets for further work, so that we don't waste our meagre resources."
The World Health Organization (WHO) lists TB as the leading killer of people living with HIV, and has estimated that South Africa has an HIV prevalence rate of about 18 percent and one of the world's highest TB burdens.
Riding the wave
Katy Athersuch, a medical innovation and access advisor to Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF)
, the global medical charity, said South Africa's vote of confidence in patent pools could be a boost to other patent pools, such as those proposed by UNITAID
, the UN drug procurement facility, and UNAIDS.
first proposed establishing a patent pool in July 2008, to increase access to newer ARVs, encourage generic production, and reduce drug prices. UNAIDS is in the process of setting up a patent pool to increase drug availability. Athersuch noted that these pools came at a crucial time.
"South Africa was one of the first countries to introduce ARVs, and treatment has been around since about 2000. While that's great, it means we are starting to see treatment failure," she said.
"First-line drugs in South Africa are cheap and affordable but there are problems, and a lot of the new drugs - the second- and third-line [regimens] - are significantly more expensive."
Athersuch noted that in 20 percent of ARV patients at MSF's clinic in Khayelitsha, a township outside of Cape Town, first-line treatment failed after five years, and second-line regimens would fail in 25 percent of patients within two years.
What the government's move will bring is a matter of speculation. Andy Gray, a senior lecturer in the Department of Therapeutics and Medicines Management at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said the move could lead to more pressure on the local drug companies TIA funds to gear research towards diseases like TB and malaria.
HIV/AIDS activist Nathan Geffen, who works as a researcher at Section 27, a public interest legal centre, said he would have liked more details about how the GSK pool would work, and questioned whether it best addressed the needs of a country with a high HIV burden like South Africa.
"There are three promising new TB drugs in development; GSK has nothing to do with any of them," he told IRIN/PlusNews
. "On the other hand, GSK has a new, very promising antiretroviral in development that is not part of this patent pool."