Say Yes to (AIDS) Drugs: Prioritizing Lives Over Profit

The Occupy Wall Street movement has gained impressive momentum over the past month, and, although the demands and agenda of activists have been criticized as disjointed and ambiguous, the motivating conviction that America’s 99 percent will no longer tolerate the greed of the wealthiest one percent has unified the diverse collective in their fight. The Occupy movement represents a critical shift in public discourse: People are no longer willing to stand by as capitalist institutions continue to profit and the majority of the global poor continue to suffer. But while the Occupy movement may effectively alter the political landscape, activists must not be afraid to wield more conventional forms of activism with specific, targeted demands, and a willingness to negotiate with the existing actors embedded in the status quo. Pharmaceutical companies are one of many oft-neglected but long-standing forces in today’s capitalist reality.

The Medicines Patent Pool campaign, coined at Harvard as the “Say Yes to (AIDS) Drugs” campaign, promotes realistic alternatives to corporate profiteering. The Harvard Global Health and AIDS Coalition has mobilized students and faculty across disciplines to rally around the Pool’s promise to bring about tangible, empirical change by improving access to AIDS medicines.

The Medicines Patent Pool was established by UNITAID to encourage pharmaceutical companies to voluntarily share their patents for AIDS drugs, allowing more affordable and more adapted versions of patented drugs to be produced generically long before the typical 20-year patent runs out. By fostering increased competition for production and distribution, the Pool achieves price reductions while still operating within the current intellectual property framework, compensating antiretroviral patent holders with royalties as appropriate. Thus, profits are still reaped while those currently suffering with AIDS in inaccessible regions of the developing world receive lifesaving treatment.

With laboratories adjacent to Harvard Medical School, the pharmaceutical company Merck holds the license to the key antiretroviral drugs efavirenz and raltegravir. Despite Merck’s professed commitment to global health, its leadership has repeatedly rejected solicitations from the Medicines Patent Pool Foundation. Merck’s current approach to reducing the price of its brand-name AIDS drug, ISENTRESS, in Sub-Saharan Africa yields an insufficient price decrease compared to generic competition, is too limited in geographic scope considering the global burden of disease, and lacks long-term accountability. Moreover, just this past July, Merck ended its price discounts for 49 middle-income countries. Joining the Pool would ensure a lasting commitment to providing affordable generic medicines to people living in low-and middle-income countries and holding a collective of pharmaceutical companies accountable.

The Harvard Global Health and AIDS Coalition has already begun mobilizing a coalition of students, faculty members, medical researchers, people living with AIDS, and local community members, all dedicated to prioritizing lives over profit. Over the next months, student activists will organize rallies, collect petition signatures, and meet with Merck’s Corporate Responsibility division. “Pool Party” demonstrations where activists plan to don swimsuits at Merck’s laboratories represent just one bit of the momentous movement to come. For now more than ever, AIDS has become a manageable, global problem to tackle.

The past year has witnessed a man cured of HIV infection, a new microbicide showing positive results, and a research study that examined two novel ways to use antiretroviral drugs. The HPTN052 study witnessed a 96 percent drop in infection rates when people with HIV started their antiretroviral therapy as soon as they were diagnosed. A trial led by the Centers for Disease Control also proved that giving one antiretroviral pill a day to people without HIV lowers the risk of catching it by two-thirds or more. Finally, a recent study led by Harvard researchers showed that investing in AIDS treatment pays back between 81 and 287 percent within just ten years, through increased labor productivity, delayed end-of-life care, and keeping children from needing to draw on orphan care funding. Activists have pieced these facts together and are determined to increase access to life-saving and cost-effective treatment across the developing world.

The Pool campaign is illustrative of much more than an attempt to foster the delivery of healthcare, balancing public and private investments. For the moment that these pharmaceutical companies become more obviously part of the access to medicines discourse, they will also be held more strongly accountable. This is a turning point in history that will cultivate the intersection of the private and public sectors, perhaps even transitioning the directionality of power. Considering the current economic climate and the obstacles to funding social programs, activists must not only radically transform the political landscape, but in the meantime, we must be willing and able to provide innovative mechanisms like the Medicines Patent Pool that persuade corporate actors to become actual do-gooders in society, however slowly.

Alyssa Yamamoto ’12 is a Comparative Study of Religion concentrator in Dunster House.

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