Brazil Requests Voluntary Licensing for AIDS Drugs To Treat More Patients, Reduce Costs of Importing Patented Drugs
The Brazilian government on Tuesday "moved a step closer" to breaking antiretroviral drug patents when it asked U.S. drug companies Merck, Gilead and Abbott Laboratories to grant the government voluntary licensing to produce generic versions of four drugs produced by the companies and used in Brazil's National STD/AIDS Programme, Reuters reports. The drugs in question include Merck's efavirenz, Abbott's lopinavir and ritonavir, and Gilead's tenofovir (Reuters, 3/15). Brazil's national AIDS program, which is considered to be one of the most progressive in the world, already manufactures and distributes generic versions of antiretrovirals, providing them at no cost to all HIV-positive people in the country. The program ignores all patents issued before 1997, when Brazil signed an intellectual property law in order to join the World Trade Organization. In January 2004, Brazil's program announced that it had negotiated deals with drug makers -- including Roche, Gilead and Abbott -- generating discounts of between 10% and 76% for the five most expensive antiretroviral medications. The deal was expected to save the treatment program $107 million last year and allow 20,000 new patients to obtain treatment through the program in 2004. However, the Brazilian government in December 2004 threatened to break the patents on as many as five of the 15 antiretroviral drugs it provides to patients in order to produce less-expensive generic medicines. Although the Brazilian government over the past three years repeatedly has said it might break patent laws in order to negotiate price reductions with pharmaceutical companies, so far it has not done so (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 12/6/04).
The Brazilian health ministry has given the U.S. drug companies until April 4 to agree to a schedule to transfer technology so that the government or local private labs can begin producing generic versions of the companies' antiretroviral drugs, the Wall Street Journal reports. If the drug companies do not agree to voluntary licensing, Brazil could employ "compulsory licensing," which effectively would break the drug patents, according to the Journal. (Wall Street Journal, 3/16). The government will pay royalties to the U.S. companies either way, according to Reuters.
Reducing Costs, Increasing Impact
Jarbas Barbosa, Brazil's health ministry control secretary, said that the government could cut in half the amount of money it spends on antiretroviral drugs if it is able to make generic versions of the four drugs in question, Reuters reports. Currently, the government program spends about 85% of its total budget on importing foreign-made drugs, compared with about half of its budget in 1998, according to Reuters. The government also hopes to increase the number of HIV-positive people served by the program to about 180,000 by the end of this year. Approximately 150,000 people in Brazil currently receive antiretroviral medication through the program, Reuters reports. Officials from the pharmaceutical companies were not available for comment, according to Reuters (Reuters, 3/15).
Detailed information on how the HIV/AIDS epidemic is affecting Brazil is available online from kaisernetwork.org.