What the international media left in their wake last week after pummeling the University with a series of reports about AIDS, Africa and the minutiae of drug patent law was a startling revelation: Yale remains woefully unprepared for its role as a leader in the pharmaceutical drug revolution, where profit and philanthropy now compete unapologetically in the background of a worldwide health crisis.
What began this month as a protest by Yale Law School students and members of Doctors Without Borders against Yale’s refusal to yield its patent rights to the HIV drug d4T, or stavudine, in Africa, quickly snowballed into a battle over the place of university research in modern medicine. D4T, a drug that treats the deadly virus that causes AIDS, was discovered by Yale pharmacology professor William Prusoff in the early 1990s and licensed exclusively to the drug giant Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. Yale administrators, including Provost Alison Richard, argued Yale had already ceded its licensing rights to Bristol-Myers, but acted quickly to push the company to allow generic drug makers to sell low-cost versions of the drug in Africa, where an estimated 25 million people are infected with the HIV virus. In spite of itself, Bristol-Myers eventually did just that.
Yale’s decision was the right one, late though it was. But it raises more questions than it answers. How does Yale distinguish between patents it licenses exclusively to private firms with profit motives from those that should be applied immediately and inexpensively to humanitarian health crises? What apparatus is in place to ensure Yale-developed and -patented drugs are used in a humanitarian way after a license is granted? Finally, how long would it have taken Yale to sort out its rights and priorities over a lifesaving patent if the world’s largest news organizations had not thrust the story into the international spotlight? When Yale must take its cue from students to discover its legal rights over a vital drug patent, there is no doubt its patenting system is in need of review.
At the center of the last week’s high-profile episode is Jon Soderstrom and the Yale Office of Cooperative Research he heads. When law students and their professors requested a copy of the University’s d4T contract with Bristol-Myers, Soderstrom denied the request without explanation. He also ignored scores of reporters’ inquiries. That decision flies in the face of Yale’s licensing policy, which purports to be working toward “the benefit of society.” How, after all, can the public interest be served in the absence of a transparent licensing process?
Embarrassed by their own lack of vigilance over University patents, Yale administrators now have a chance to become leaders in the battle to flesh out and firm up ethical licensing policies. Richard and Soderstrom should work together to create a new set of guidelines that give the University more leverage over its medicinal patents. Exclusive rights to research should be offered sparingly and with exit strategies in case of health crisis like that of AIDS in the Third World.
Non-profit universities that pride themselves on applying light and truth to the world of ideas are equally obliged to apply those standards to the lifesaving world of medicine.