Advocates, Students Lobby Yale University to Allow South Africa to Import StavudineDoctors Without Borders, a non-governmental organization that provides medical services in developing nations, has asked Yale University to allow South Africa to import a generic version of the AIDS drug stavudine, for which Yale holds the patent, the New York Times reports. Yale refused the offer, citing a patent contract with pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb, to which Yale licensed the drug shortly after its development in the early 1990s. The university said Friday, however, that it had "removed all barriers" for Bristol-Myers to make the drug available in South Africa and "hoped it would do so." Last December, Doctors Without Borders wrote to the South African division of Bristol-Myers asking for permission to import generic forms of stavudine -- also known as d4T or Zerit -- and didanosine, another antiretroviral drug. In a reply letter, CEO I.J. Strachan responded that "[i]t is the policy of Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. to rely upon its patents to protect its interests." Bristol-Myers spokesperson Robert Laverty, however, said, "We're in active discussions with Yale to see that the patent doesn't prevent access to patients in South Africa at the lowest prices available."
Meanwhile, a group of Yale law students have rallied to "pressure" the university into allowing South Africa to import the drug. Alleging "potential conflicts of interest" between Yale and Bristol-Myers, the students have asked for a copy of the contract between the university and the drug maker. The students contend that the university may have a conflict of interest on the issue because Bristol-Myers donated $250,000 to Yale three years ago and because Jon Soderstrom, managing director of the Yale Office of Cooperative Research, is a member of the board of the drug company Achillion, where several former Bristol-Myers executives also serve as board members. Soderstrom declined to give the students a copy of the contract between Yale and Bristol-Myers, but said that he is "willing to meet with concerned students" on the issue. Bristol-Myers said that it was "planning action" in response to the students' protest, although the company did not go into detail as to what action it is contemplating. Meanwhile, William Prusoff, the Yale professor who originally discovered stavudine, has said that he would "strongly support" the students' efforts to make the drug more accessible in developing nations. "I wish they would either supply the drug for free or allow India or Brazil to produce it cheaply for underdeveloped countries. But the problem is, the big drug houses are not altruistic organizations. Their only purpose is to make money," he concluded (McNeil, New York Times, 3/12).