‘Patent Pool’ – is GSK setting a new trend for the global pharmaceutical industry?

On February 13, 2009, The Guardian reported that Andrew Witty, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) announced some significant changes to the way his company will operate in the developing countries of the world.

GSK, as Witty said, will:

• “Cut its prices for all drugs in the 50 least developed countries to no more than 25% of the levels in the UK and US – and less if possible – and make drugs more affordable in middle- income countries such as Brazil and India.

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.

• Reinvest 20% of any profits it makes in the least developed countries in hospitals, clinics and staff.

• Invite scientists from other companies, NGOs or governments to join the hunt for tropical disease treatments at its dedicated institute at Tres Cantos, Spain.”

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”.

We work like crazy to come up with the next great medicine, knowing that it’s likely to get used an awful lot in developed countries, but we could do something for developing countries. Are we working as hard on that? I want to be able to say yes we are, and that’s what this is all about – trying to make sure we are even-handed in terms of our efforts to find solutions not just for developed but for developing countries,” Witty envisioned.

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,” he expressed Knowing full well that his comments will be considered as quite radical within the global pharmaceutical Industry.

The unorthodox young CEO of GSK continued, “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.”

Definition of ‘Patent Pool’:

The ‘Patent Pool’ 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 Pool’, as considered by its proponent, is that the system enables the use of innovation against payment of royalties, without the risk of patent infringement.

The rationale for ‘Patent Pool’ 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 Pool’ is quite new in the global pharmaceutical industry, this system is being very successfully and widely practised within the Information Technology (IT) industry. ‘Patent Pool’ system, if effectively used, can also help the global pharmaceutical companies to improve their access to many more developing countries of the world.

GSK appears to have 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’.

Key requirements for the ‘Patent Pool’:

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.

Key issues with the ‘Patent Pool’ concept:

It has been reported, from a WHO conference held in April, 2006 ‘Innovation Strategy Today’ worked out that the start-up costs of a ‘Patent Pool’ for vaccines will be economically viable only if more than 25 participants holding relevant patents join the initiative.

Moreover, various types of litigations, related to patents, which we are currently witnessing within the global pharmaceutical industry, could also be impediment in getting more patents in the pool.


The initiative to create a ‘Patent Pool’ system in the global pharmaceutical industry, especially for the diseases of the poor, as enunciated by the CEO of GSK, is indeed a path breaking one. Such initiatives are likely to have very positive contribution in solving the problem of access to affordable medicines, especially in the developing world.

In fact, the Council of Science and Industrial Research of the Government of India, lead by its Director General, Dr. Samir Brahmachari has already undertaken similar initiatives in the country where global experts including academia are actively participating.

Though ‘Patent Pool’ is still an untested model in the global pharmaceutical industry, the recent announcement of GSK towards this direction does appear to offer a realistic and practical approach to address the critical global issue of improving ‘access to affordable innovative modern medicines’ to a vast majority of population in the developing countries of the world.

By Tapan 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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