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Patent pools: an idea whose time has come

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.b1630 (Published 21 April 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b1630
  1. Elizabeth Sukkar
  1. 1Scrip World Pharmaceutical News

    As GlaxoSmithKline places 500 patents into a pool for use by other drug makers against the payment of royalties, Elizabeth Sukkar looks at further developments

    Many attempts have been made to encourage drug firms to undertake research and development of new and affordable treatments for neglected diseases in developing countries, a market with little commercial return.

    Some obvious examples include incentives to the industry, such as the US Food and Drug Administration’s fast tracking of drugs for neglected diseases; public-private partnerships (a favourite, as drug firms can share the blame when research is slow), and advanced market commitments.

    It is clear that the patent system does not work for all diseases, especially those that mainly affect poor people with little purchasing power.

    An idea that is now gaining ground is patent pools. GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has just set one up for neglected tropical diseases, and UNITAID, an international body that spends around $300m (£210m; €230m) annually on the purchase of medical goods for the treatment and prevention of AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria in developing countries, is creating one for HIV and AIDS treatments.

    The idea is backed by the UK government; and even the global strategy and plan of action on public health, innovation, and intellectual property adopted by the World Health Assembly in May 2008 contained the recommendation to “examine the feasibility of voluntary patent pools of . . . technologies to promote innovation of and access to health products and medical devices.”

    Patent pools have been around for about 150 years, used successfully in other industries such as information technology, but their move into the drug industry is a new development. Will they work in creating better treatments for neglected diseases in developing countries?

    In July 2008 UNITAID’s executive board gave the go ahead to create a patent pool …

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