When I talk about Yale’s ethical licensing policy, most of the time I’m referring to the use of sweatshops in apparel manufacturing. Yale licenses the use of its name and thus controls the conditions in which products bearing the University’s trademark are made. If the administration wanted to, it could insist on strong ethical controls over manufacturing conditions.
But yesterday’s Yale Daily News showed another potential sort of lapse in Yale’s ethical licensing policy, perhaps even more direct than Yale’s tacit approval of sweatshops. As reported, Yale is currently faced with a situation in which it can choose to license its intellectual property in a way that could potentially treat millions of AIDS patients.
According to the article, the Nobel Prize-winning Doctors Without Borders requested that Yale permit a generic version of an important AIDS drug to be imported into and used in South Africa, which would make the medicine affordable to impoverished patients.
Yale owns the patent to d4T, but it is unclear whether the University has the exclusive right to allow cheaper distribution of the drug in South Africa or whether it requires the permission of Bristol-Myers Squibb, a multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical concern. Lawyers in the General Counsel’s office and the Office of Cooperative Research should be scrutinizing the language of Yale’s contract with BMS to find a way the University can grant permission for the cheaper version of the drug.
If Yale can allow the drug to be imported into AIDS-ravished South Africa more cheaply, it certainly must. It would be impossible to justify a decision in which the University preferred to make more money rather than treat millions of AIDS patients.
But if Provost Alison Richard’s prediction is correct and Yale is contractually forbidden to allow the cheaper version of the drug, it will be a loud call for Yale to change its pharmaceutical licensing policy. Yale must not sign contracts with pharmaceutical giants that prevent access to life-saving drugs. Yale’s mission as an educational institution, a university that claims a 300-year-old liberal tradition, requires that epidemiological crises trump the University’s profit motive.
That a Yale pharmacologist was able to devote the time and budget to discovering d4T is a testament to the importance of academia to medical research. Professors traditionally have had the ability to pursue topics which interest them and which are less likely to make a profit than others. For-profit corporations can devote their energy to designer drugs like Viagra and Propecia; organizations such as Yale can work on drugs that will help people because profit is of less concern.
Traditionally, such research has been supported by the federal government and, increasingly, by the pharmaceutical industry itself. Under the Bayh-Dole Act, drugs developed with funds from the government can be more easily licensed to for-profit companies, a change that has arguably placed more control of the academic research agenda in the hands of companies like BMS.
Doctors, policy-makers and advocates have debated in recent years whether the Bayh-Dole system gives too much power to pharmaceutical companies in deciding which drugs will be developed by academic scientists. But when the profit-interests of a $21 billion company get in the way of Yale allowing South Africans to receive a life-saving drug, it becomes obvious the pharmaceutical industry has too much power on campus.
The letter from Doctors Without Borders creates a perfect opportunity for Yale to examine its relationship with pharmaceutical giants like Bristol-Myers Squibb. If the company does indeed stand in the way of d4T being made available affordably to South African AIDS patients, Yale must quickly and publicly denounce its business partner and use its considerable influence to insist that BMS release its exclusive rights to the drug in that country.
Yale should also take steps to ensure this situation does not again occur. It should add language to all future similar contracts that would allow the University to act unilaterally in a case such as this.
In addition, Richard should convene an ad hoc advisory panel with representatives from the Office of Cooperative Research, scientists and bioethicists to examine whether the University has ceded too much control to corporate backers and partners. This committee should address not only licensing issues but also whether a desire to court corporate money has caused University researchers to sacrifice their academic independence.
With the letter from Doctors Without Borders waiting for a reply, there is no better time for the University to examine its relationship with companies whose primary goal is to make money.
Jacob Remes is a junior in Saybrook College. His columns appear on alternate Thursdays.