On the heels of its efforts last spring to make its AIDS drug d4T more accessible in Africa, Yale has made another vital contribution to the fight against the global AIDS epidemic. A research team led by Dr. John Rose at the School of Medicine has announced that it has achieved promising preliminary results with an experimental AIDS vaccine.
But before the University pats itself on the back, Yale must not forget the lessons of the d4T controversy. Yale’s contract with Bristol Myers Squibb — the pharmaceuticals giant Yale teamed up with to commercialize the Yale-invented d4T — had no provision which might allow the University to demand reduced prices in Third World countries or to produce generic versions of the drug.
Fortunately, outcries in South Africa, public pressure and a persistent Yale administration convinced Bristol Myers to allow other companies to produce generic copies of the AIDS drug for low price distribution in Africa.
But when Rose’s AIDS vaccine reaches the market, which will not happen for several years, if at all, the developing world should not have to wait for affordable prices. Rose’s vaccine — a nasal spray that would be administered only once or twice in one’s life — will be most effective in poorer countries where doctors find it nearly impossible to get people to return for multiple injections. It will also be the easiest method of vaccinating children, since it can be administered with a quick spray, not a needle.
The company to which Yale has licensed the manufacturing rights to Rose’s vaccine, Wyeth-Lederle — a subdivision of pharmaceuticals giant American Home Products — is footing the enormous bill required to push the vaccine through clinical testing. In partnering with Yale and supporting Rose’s work, the firm has already shown a commitment to help stop the AIDS epidemic.
At the start of 2001, over 36 million people worldwide were living with HIV or AIDS. More than 70 percent of those people, approximately 25.3 million, live in Sub-Saharan Africa, and another 16 percent live in South and Southeast Asia. Wyeth-Lederle will need to recoup its investment and make a profit to stimulate further research and development, but it must not do so at the expense of the world’s neediest AIDS victims.
The University must not dismiss Wyeth-Lederle’s need for revenue, for crippling the industry which develops life-saving drugs benefits neither producers nor consumers. Rather, the University ought to use its leverage with manufacturers to balance humanitarian concerns with legitimate corporate self-interest.
Hopeful indicators on this front already exist. In September, Yale President Richard Levin said Yale would look into “differential pricing” — where different prices are charged in different regions — for the vaccine once it reaches the market. With an eye toward the links between economic necessity and moral imperatives, as well as the tensions between them, the University should push for a policy to guarantee that people around the world benefit from the fruits of Yale’s scholarship.