Science & Tech

Drug patents not crucial in AIDS fight, researchers find

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Have little to do with distribution of anti-AIDS drugs in Africa

About 25 million people are infected with AIDS in Africa and just 25,000, or one in 1,000, are receiving antiretroviral drug treatment. Patents for anti-AIDS drugs have come under fire repeatedly in recent years, with activists charging that the patents keep drug prices high and block manufacture of cheaper generic alternatives that could save lives. However, a researcher at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government has found that more than half of 15 antiretroviral drugs were patented in three or fewer of Africa’s 53 countries. Amir Attaran and his study co-author, Lee Gillespie-White of the International Intellectual Property Institute, say that use of the drugs is consistently low across the continent and apparently unrelated to whether they are covered under patent law. Published as a special communication in the Journal of the American Medical Association in october 2001, the study came under fire even before its publication from activists who shared drafts of the journal article over the Internet. Attaran, who began circulating drafts seeking input, said some commentators had been helpful and even prompted changes in drafts of the article. Other criticism, he said, has amounted to little more than name-calling.