Representatives from Doctors Without Borders, a humanitarian medical aid organization that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999, have sent a letter asking the University to permit a generic copy of a Yale-patented AIDS drug to be imported and distributed in South Africa.
Currently, the drug in question, d4T, can only be sold by companies authorized by Yale and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., the pharmaceutical giant Yale has contracted to process, market and sell the antiretroviral chemical compound. Doctors Without Borders said the patent for d4T in South Africa is registered under the Yale name and hopes the University will issue a voluntary license to allow the importation and use of generic d4T in South Africa. Provost Alison Richard, Yale’s chief academic and financial officer, said Yale is trying to make the drug available cheaply in South Africa, but the ability to issue a license is not within Yale’s power because of the contract with Bristol-Myers Squibb.
“It’s not ours to give away,” Richard said. “We are hopeful that Bristol-Myers Squibb is going to do their best to make this work out.”
But Toby Kaspar, coordinator of the Access to Essential Medicines Campaign for the South African chapter of Doctors Without Borders, said it is unlikely that Yale would sign over its patent rights to Bristol-Myers Squibb. If Yale has the patent rights, it can issue a license to either Doctors Without Borders or the South African government to allow a company other than Bristol-Myers Squibb to sell d4T.
Richard declined to elaborate on the details of the contract between Yale and Bristol-Myers Squibb.
Doctors Without Borders representatives wrote in the letter addressed to Jon Soderstrom, Yale’s director of the Office for Cooperative Research, that they would like the University to respond to their request by Thursday.
A woman who answered the telephone at Soderstrom’s residence hung up on a reporter.
D4T was discovered by Yale pharmacology professor William Prusoff in the early 1990s. Following the discovery, Yale teamed up with Bristol-Myers Squibb to bring the drug onto the market under the trade name Zerit.
South Africa’s intellectual property laws do not allow domestic companies to freely copy drugs already patented in the United States. This allows giant pharmaceutical groups like Bristol-Myers Squibb to charge monopoly prices for AIDS drugs in South Africa, a poverty-stricken country where one in five citizens is HIV-infected.
Three weeks ago, Cipla Ltd., a renegade pharmaceutical company from India, offered to provide Doctors Without Borders d4T for $40 per patient. Bristol-Myers Squibb, on the other hand, is offering d4T for more than $1,000 per patient, Kaspar said.
But whether Doctors Without Borders will be able to take up Cipla’s offer depends on whether Yale can and, if legally able, would allow a company other than Bristol-Myers Squibb to bring d4T into South Africa.
“Yale has the ability to make a real difference here,” Kaspar said.
Doctors Without Borders has also said it would be open to Bristol-Myers Squibb decreasing its prices to match Cipla’s. But Kaspar said it is unlikely South Africa will get d4T cheaply unless influential bodies like Yale step forward on ethical grounds.
South Africa has the highest AIDS-infected population in the world, and groups like Doctors Without Borders see pharmaceutical companies as one of the major obstacles to an effective Western response to the epidemic.
Prusoff, who discovered d4T, said he hopes South Africans will be able to benefit from his discovery.
“I think that one of the problems is that the drugs are too expensive, even if they reduce it to 99 percent,” Prusoff said.