Tahir Amin, DipLP, co-founder and co-executive director of the Initiative for Medicines, Access, and Knowledge, discusses the organization’s focus on patent opposition for HIV drugs, the results of their work, and what efforts are still needed.
The Initiative for Medicines, Access, and Knowledge (I-MAK), is a public interest team of attorneys and scientists who work to increase global access to affordable life-saving medicines by ensuring that patents do not block access to these medicines for patients globally.
In 2006, I-MAK started with a focus on increasing access to treatment for HIV in India. We spoke with Tahir Amin, DipLP, co-founder and director of intellectual property for I-MAK about the organization’s decision to focus on HIV drugs for patent opposition, the results of their work, and what efforts are still needed.
How did you decide to focus on HIV drugs for your work in patent opposition?
At the time, around 2000, there was a massive uproar by people in the developing world who weren’t able to get access to affordable HIV drugs. I think the prices, in 2000, were about $10,000, and there was a case brought by 40 pharmaceutical companies against the South African government, Mandela’s government at the time. And out of that grew this access to medicines movement, which basically was trying to then get cheaper, affordable HIV drugs to low-income people in developing countries.
In India at the time was bringing in this new patent law in 2005, so everyone was concerned. Doctors Without Borders called India the pharmacy of the poor because they were supplying so much of the HIV medicine, and they were concerned that this pipeline was going to basically dry up if patents were being granted. So, we focused on HIV largely because of that growing movement and that need. And even today, despite all the great work that’s been done in the HIV space, we’re seeing now that, I think recently there was an article out about the number of people getting HIV medicine is really not as high as it should be.
There’s going to be a crisis in 2020 in the middle-income countries because a number of people are not going to be able to get HIV treatment. So, despite all the great work that has been done, there’s still so much more to do, and still, the HIV issue is still central to our work, despite almost now 10 years of work that we started back then.
How has your work affected access to and the cost of HIV therapies?
I think we’ve seen the costs come down significantly, and a lot of that is because of the advocacy, the patient community, global health, organizations really putting this issue on the agenda. I do believe that the newer generations of drugs are still far out of reach, in particular for middle-income countries. So, for example, a number of developing countries are getting included in access programs or licenses, so those countries are getting some of the benefits of the work that’s been done, but middle-income countries are being left out because they’re emerging markets.
So, those countries are a facing a big crisis in terms of accessing these drugs at affordable prices. I think that’s where a lot of the work has to be concentrated now, because there has been a tradeoff where pharmaceutical companies have said we’ll give to the least developing countries, but we’re going to keep the bigger markets to ourselves, where the prices are still around $5000, $6000, $7000. And yet, there are actually more poor people living in middle-income countries than almost anywhere else, so that’s where the crisis really lies. If we don’t solve that problem, we’re going to be facing another HIV crisis as we did in the early days.