From Cross-Licensing to ‘Patent Pools’ and… India: Will there be a ground swell?

Since many years, the global pharmaceutical industry has been making effective commercial use of cross-licensing, however, by and large, the industry still does not seem to be quite in favor of  ‘Patent Pools’ for various reasons.

The ‘Patent Pool’, as I understand is defined as, “an agreement between different owners, including companies, governments and academic bodies to make available patent rights on non-exclusive basis to manufacturers and distributor of drugs against payment of royalties.”

Thus one of the often repeated key benefits of the ‘Patent Pools’, as considered by its proponents, is that the system enables the use of innovation against payment of royalties, without the risk of patent infringement. Many believe that the concept of ‘Patent Pool’ can play an immensely useful role for productive use of Intellectual Property (IP) in the global pharmaceutical industry.

The difference between cross-licensing and ‘Patent Pools’:

The basic purposes of both Cross-Licensing and patent pools may appear to be similar, however the key difference is that in ‘Patent Pool’ system the patent owners usually agree to license to third parties who may not even contribute any patents to the pool. Moreover, ‘Patent Pools’ involve a large number of parties with its scope being narrow and well standardized.

“Patent Pools”- still a contentious issue:

The concept of ‘Patent Pools’ has become a contentious issue within the global pharmaceutical industry. Some opinion leaders vehemently argue that creation of a ‘patent pool’ will bring down the cost of any innovation significantly and save huge time, ensuring speedier and improved access to such medicines to a vast majority of ailing population across the world. This section of the experts also feels, “in the case of blocking patents as a commercial strategy, it would only be a reasonable method for making the innovation publicly available.”
In the midst of this high decibel debate, on February 13, 2009, ‘The Guardian’ reported the following comment of Andrew Witty, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) on the same issue:
“GSK will put any chemicals or processes over which it has intellectual property rights that are relevant to finding drugs for neglected diseases into a patent pool, so they can be explored by other researchers”.
Andrew Witty in that interview also commented, “I think it’s the first time anybody’s really come out and said we’re prepared to start talking to people about pooling our patents to try to facilitate innovation in areas where, so far, there hasn’t been much progress… I think the shareholders understand this and it’s my job to make sure I can explain it. I think we can. I think it’s absolutely the kind of thing large global companies need to be demonstrating, that they’ve got a more balanced view of the world than short-term returns.”
Quoting Andrew Witty, ‘The Guardian’ reported, “his stance may not win him friends in other drug companies, but he is inviting them to join him in an attempt to make a significant difference to the health of people in poor countries”.
Yet another ‘out of box’ comment:
As if to prove ‘The Guardian’ right on their above comment, during his visit to India on March 2010, though in a slightly different context, Witty made the following comments, while answering a question of “The Economic Times”:
“I am relatively relaxed with the Indian regulatory environment. The government has made it clear about the direction to have an Intellectual Property (IP) mechanism and to be TRIPS compliant. Some people are unrealistic and want everything to change overnight. But we should be absolutely realistic about pricing to keep it affordable for India. If someone has the IP right, it does not mean that it should make it inaccessible for lower income people. Over the next 10-15 years India will become increasingly IP defined market.”
The rationale for ‘Patent Pools’ system:
Many experts in this area feel that the conventional patent system does not really work for the diseases of the poor, all over the world. Though the concept of ‘Patent Pools’ is quite new in the global pharmaceutical industry, this system is being very successfully and widely practiced within the Information Technology (IT) industry. ‘Patent Pool’ system, if effectively used, as stated earlier, can also help the global pharmaceutical companies to improve access of such medicines to many more developing countries of the world.

Key requirements for the ‘Patent Pools’:
Careful identification of various patents, which will be essential for the pool, will be one of the key requirements to initiate a ‘Patent Pool’ system. It makes the need to obtain individual patents, required in the process of a drug discovery, less important.

National Institute of Health (NIH), USA initiated the process:
On September 30, 2010, NIH became the first patent-holder to share its intellectual property with the Medicines Patent Pool, supported by UNITAID, by licensing a patent for ‘Darunavir’ to increase access of HIV and AIDS medicines to the suffering patients in the developing countries of the world.

UNITAID, an innovative global health financing mechanism is funded by a levy on airline tickets. This initiative was co-founded by the U.K, France, Norway, Brazil and Chile at the United Nations General Assembly in 2006 and buys drugs against HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.
The above move of NIH towards the noble cause was appreciated by many all over the world, urging the global pharmaceutical industry, in general, to take a leaf out of it.

India was kept out of UNITAID “Patent Pool”:

In 2009-10, UNITAID reportedly had opposed the move to include countries like, India, China and Brazil from the proposed patent pool for AIDS drugs. At least seven civil society groups from India like, the Centre for Trade and Development, the National Working Group on Patent Laws, the All India Peoples Science Network openly stated that UNITAID does not intend to share the patent pool implementation plan with these civil society groups of India. They also alleged that this development in UNITAID will have a significant impact on the ability of Indian Pharmaceutical industry to manufacture low-cost versions of patented HIV/AIDS medicines for the developing countries of the world.

At that time, it was also reported that large global pharmaceutical players had indicated to UNITAID that they could contribute to the ‘patent pool’ on a selective basis, however, over 100 middle income countries such as India, Brazil and China should not have rights to manufacture generic versions of these HIV/AIDS medicines. They felt that ‘patent pool’ will be meaningless if poor countries, who do not have the capability to manufacture these medicines, are included in the process.

However, according to UNITAID, “the patent pool in no way a means to replace or override other provisions contained in the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement or the Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health. The patent pool represents an additional tool to increase access to HIV treatment, and an opportunity for patent holders to voluntarily contribute to the attainment of crucial health-related goals endorsed by the international community.”

GSK kick-started the process:

Andrew Witty of GSK is undoubtedly the first CEO of a global pharmaceutical company to announce a ‘Patent Pool’ system for research on 16 neglected tropical diseases like, tuberculosis, malaria, filariasis, leprosy and leishmaniasis. GSK has, in a real sense, kick started the process by putting more than 500 granted pharmaceuticals patents and over 300 pending applications in the ‘Patent Pool’.

J&J followed suit:

Johnson and Johnson (J&J) in January 2011 expressed its willingness to assist ‘Medicines Patent Pool Foundation (MPPF)’ to implement ‘Medicines Patent Pool (MPP)’, which aims to improve access to affordable and appropriate HIV medicines in developing countries. MPPF works through voluntary licensing of patents for public health interest, at the same time extending compensation to the innovator pharmaceutical companies.

‘Medicines Patent Pools’:

On April 7, 2011. ‘Intellectual Property Watch’ reported that the ‘Medicines Patent Pools’, an initiative to improve access to HIV drugs through voluntary licenses of patented drugs, have launched a new database of patent information on HIV medicines in developing countries. The database has been developed with the support of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and Regional Patent Offices across the world. Intellectual Property Watch

Key issues with the ‘Patent Pools’ concept:
The report from a WHO conference held in April, 2006 ‘Innovation Strategy Today’ indicates that the start-up cost of a ‘Patent Pools’ for vaccines will be economically viable only if more than 25 participants holding relevant patents join the initiative.
Moreover, various types of litigation related to patents, which are being currently witnessed within the global pharmaceutical industry, could also be an impediment in getting more patents in the pool.

Recommended ‘General Principles’ for “Patent Pools”:
International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA), Switzerland, suggested the following guidelines for the ‘Patent Pool’ initiatives:
1. Patent pools should be voluntary associations of entities formed without coercion 2. Objectives of any patent pool should be clearly defined 3. Patent pools should complement rather than replace elements of existing intellectual property regimes 4. Rights and obligations of contributors and licensees of contributed rights should be clear 5. Patent pools should reduce transaction costs, and not increase administrative costs, relative to other options such as direct licensing
Conclusion:
There is certainly an urgent need to communicate more on how innovation and IPR could help rather than hinder public health. At the same time all stakeholders of the pharmaceutical industry need to come out with a robust solution to ever increasing problem of improving access to innovative medicines to the ailing population of the world, in the best possible way.
However, these are still very early days, before such a disrupting idea get widely accepted by the global innovators and implemented religiously not just for the ‘public health interest’, across the world, but also to create a sustainable business model to harvest ‘Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid’.

Only future will tell us whether or not the ‘Patent Pools’ initiatives become the footprints on the sands of time as the global pharmaceutical industry keeps  navigating through the challenges of change.

By: Tapan J Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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