University administrators said yesterday the exclusive rights to the importation and use in South Africa of the AIDS drug d4T are in the hands of the pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. and not Yale.

Yale was responding to Doctors Without Borders, the humanitarian group that recently requested the University’s help in making the Yale-patented drug more affordable in South Africa. The point of contention is whether companies other than Bristol-Myers Squibb can process, market and sell d4T in South Africa. While Doctors Without Borders suggested Yale has the power to break the pharmaceutical giant’s monopoly, Yale administrators now say that they don’t.

Doctors Without Borders, the Nobel Prize-winning organization that specializes in medical aid to developing countries, sent a letter to Yale Feb. 14 requesting the University to help it and the South African government acquire d4T at an affordable price. Because Yale holds the South African patent for d4T, a drug discovered by Yale pharmacologist William Prusoff, the humanitarian group had asked the University to issue a voluntary license to allow the importation and use of generic d4T in South Africa.

Jon Soderstrom, the managing director of Yale’s Office of Cooperative Research, sent a letter yesterday to Doctors Without Borders confirming that the University holds the patent for d4T in South Africa, but that “Yale has granted an exclusive license to Bristol-Myers Squibb, under the terms of which only [Bristol-Myers Squibb] may respond to [the request made by Doctors Without Borders].”

Doctors Without Borders has sent a letter asking Bristol-Myers Squibb to either allow the generic production and importation of d4T or to reduce the price of the drug to a level comparable to that being offered by companies producing generic versions of the drug.

But pharmaceutical companies have not been receptive to such demands. For the past four years, Bristol-Myers Squibb and other pharmaceutical companies have delayed the implementation of the South African Medicines Act, a piece of legislation designed to import cheaper non-patented versions of drugs in situations of health emergency, through a lawsuit contending that the legislation impinges on the companies’ intellectual property rights. Arguments around the case will begin March 5.

Law School students are beginning to form a committee to investigate Yale’s position on d4T in South Africa and on the University’s patenting policy in general.

“We think that Yale should release the contract, or at least make it available to lawyers who can see if there can be another interpretation,” Marco Simons LAW ’01 said. “If the contract really is iron-clad, Yale should exert political and moral pressure on Bristol-Myers Squibb to produce the drug at a low cost itself or grant the license for another company to do so.”

Yale President Richard Levin and Provost Alison Richard, Yale’s chief academic and financial officer, were unavailable for comment late last night. A Bristol-Meyers Squibb spokesman also could not be reached late last night.