Johnson & Johnson turns its back on people living with HIV/AIDS

December 28, 2011

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Johnson & Johnson turns its back on people living with HIV/AIDS © MSF

Dear Supporters,

Thank you for joining our call to action urging Johnson & Johnson to license the company’s patents on three lifesaving HIV/AIDS drugs to the Medicines Patent Pool, a mechanism designed to lower prices of HIV medicines and increase access to them for people in the developing world.

Despite continuing to earn record profits and a company credo that calls for putting patients first, on December 19, Johnson & Johnson continued to turn its back on people living with HIV/AIDS in many developing countries by telling the Pool it refused to license its patents on the HIV drugs rilpivirine, darunavir, and etravirine.

Over the past two years, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been urging Johnson & Johnson, and other companies holding HIV drug patents, to take this critical step of joining the Pool. The Pool would license patents on HIV drugs to other manufacturers and the resulting competition would dramatically reduce prices, making them much more affordable in the developing world and allow new combination medicines.

In refusing to join the Medicines Patent Pool, Johnson & Johnson says there is no urgency for making these drugs widely available in developing countries. That’s simply not true. MSF now provides treatment to more than 180,000 people living with HIV worldwide, and is beginning to witness the inevitable, natural phenomenon of treatment failure, whereby people develop resistance to the drugs they are taking and need to graduate to newer medicines.

Furthermore, rilpivirine, darunavir, and etravirine were identified among the key drug formulations needed for HIV treatment by the Medicines Patent Pool, UNITAID and the World Health Organization’s HIV/AIDS Department.

Why Joining the Medicines Patent Pool Matters for Access to Medicines

Newer, better antiretrovirals are already used by patients in the US and Europe, but aren’t available to people in developing countries or are simply too expensive. People living with HIV need access to these newer treatments, so they have the best chance of keeping the virus from further weakening their immune system as they navigate this life–long disease. By helping make these drugs more affordable, the Medicines Patent Pool will ensure the delivery of these newer drugs for people in the developing world.

Treating HIV is complex and often requires patients to take multiple drug cocktails. But by combining the different drugs into one easy-to-take pill, it is easier for patients to stick to their treatment. At the moment, it can be a struggle for generic producers to develop these much needed fixed–dose combinations, because different companies own the patents on the various drugs. By putting these patents under collective management, the Patent Pool will make it possible for many more combination therapies to be developed.

Although Johnson & Johnson is already engaging in voluntary licensing with some generic companies they decided against taking the extra step of joining the Pool to improve access for people living with HIV. The company’s proposal to expand access to its HIV medicines does not go far enough, and they know it.

In saying no to the Medicines Patent Pool, Johnson & Johnson has made a conscious, willful decision to turn its back on people living with HIV in the developing world. Last year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which holds a partial patent on the Johnson & Johnson drug darunavir, licensed its part of the darunavir patent to the Pool. By refusing to join the Patent Pool, Johnson & Johnson has effectively made this NIH license useless.

Why Johnson & Johnson’s Response is Not Enough

Individual company drug pricing discounts or deals with specific countries or generic manufacturers limit the competition, which is what ultimately brings down prices. Unless Johnson & Johnson and other companies take part in a collective way forward to bring affordable medicines to more people in all developing countries, they are not part of the solution as they want the public to think. They are contributing to the problem. They want to control who can make and use their drugs based on their commercial needs rather than the needs of people living with HIV.

There are now more than six million people receiving lifesaving HIV treatment worldwide. This didn’t happen because individual companies lowered their prices for specific countries or worked out exclusive deals with certain generic companies, which is what Johnson & Johnson is doing with their newest HIV medicines. Antiretroviral treatment was made more accessible because of competition among many generic companies which helped bring prices down by 99 percent, from $10,000 per patient per year to roughly $150 per patient per year.

Going forward, mechanisms to promote generic competition by overriding patents—as allowed by international law—in addition to voluntary initiatives, such as the Medicines Patent Pool, will be crucial to ensuring that monopolies do not stand in the way of patients' access to lifesaving drugs.

Continuing the Fight for Patients

The fight for our patients does not end here with this announcement from Johnson & Johnson. MSF will continue to press Johnson & Johnson and other companies holding patents on essential HIV/AIDS medicines to join the Medicines Patent Pool.

Ultimately, it is about breaking the double standard of access to essential medicines for patients living with HIV/AIDS in developing countries. For the sake of patients who are resistant to today's treatment as well as patients of tomorrow who are still waiting for access to improved drugs, MSF will continue to call for real access to affordable medicines.

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