MIT Behind Harvard in Access to Medicines

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Earlier this month, news broke that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology would become the first university to contribute intellectual property to the GlaxoSmithKline patent pool for “neglected tropical diseases,” diseases that predominantly or exclusively affect people in developing countries. The MIT announcement is part of a growing movement among universities to focus on gaps in a drug-development system that too often neglects the needs of patients in the developing world.

By placing its patents in the GlaxoSmithKline pool, MIT agrees to allow other researchers to use its intellectual property to help fight neglected tropical diseases. But use is limited: According to GlaxoSmithKline, the intellectual property must relate directly to NTDs, and products that are developed from the pool will “go solely to the least developed countries.” This small group of 50 least developed countries will exclude low- and middle-income nations like India, China, and Brazil, where a majority of the world’s poor live and most of the developing world’s affordable generic medicines are produced.

While patent pooling may be a step toward opening up access to knowledge for researchers who wish to help people in developing countries, students at MIT have asked, “Is MIT doing enough?” Neglected tropical diseases are not the only diseases that kill people in developing countries: Heart disease, HIV/AIDS, and stroke are among the leading causes of death among people in poor countries. These diseases are not “neglected,” because they affect the rich and poor alike, and new technologies are being developed to treat them. Yet it is the poor who disproportionately die from these diseases, due in part to lack of access to appropriate care.

Universities like MIT are starting to acknowledge that patenting can serve as a double-edged sword. It can be used to develop university technology into useful products by attracting investors, but it can also interfere with access to knowledge by blocking researchers and patients from accessing vital ideas created at universities. What can academic institutions do to ensure that all important treatments coming from our labs—not just NTD treatments—reach people in developing countries?

Last November, a group of universities, which included Harvard, Yale, and Boston University, came together to support a joint statement announcing a broad-based commitment to “promote availability of health technologies in developing countries for essential medical care.” One of the key points of this document stated that university intellectual property should not serve as a barrier to global access: Drugs created in academic labs should not be priced out of reach for poor people in poor countries. The joint statement has now gained the support of the National Institute of Health, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and Boston-area Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s Hospitals.

MIT was invited to sign on to the statement but declined to do so, leading students to question whether the institution has lived up to its mission to “bring [its] knowledge to bear on the world’s greatest challenges.” In this context, MIT’s patent-pooling announcement appears to be an unsuccessful attempt to catch up with Harvard and other Boston-area academic-research centers in the race to deliver essential medicines to patients in developing countries.

Since signing the statement, Harvard University has begun employing creative licensing strategies to ensure that its patents will not be asserted in ways that harm patients in the developing world. Even better, Harvard’s strategy is broad-based. The office of technology development is working to apply global-access strategies to all medical technologies emerging from our labs—not just neglected tropical diseases. It is also developing ways to provide access in lower-middle-income countries like India, where the majority of the population still cannot afford expensive medical treatments. While much work remains to be done, Harvard has begun to show itself as a leader among peer institutions in implementing its commitments to global access.

The patent pool announced by international aid group Unitaid last December serves as another broad-based initiative to help the poor in developing countries. Whereas the patent pool run by GlaxoSmithKline focuses on research, not manufacturing, and limits its reach to the 50 least developed countries, the Unitaid Patent Pool will allow generic drugs to be made and sold across the developing world. The Unitaid pool focuses on HIV/AIDS therapies, many of which have originated at academic research centers. Placing patents in the Unitaid Patent Pool would be the next best move for universities wishing to support global health.

MIT’s announcement is an important step in acknowledging that creative strategies must be used to stop university patents from serving as a barrier to further innovation and access to essential medicines. Yet contributing patents to the GlaxoSmithKline patent pool is the least a university can do. Let us hope that MIT, along with other universities who have yet to join in a more broad-based commitment to global access, will soon get the message that they can do much more.

Sarah E. Sorscher is a third-year Harvard JD/MPH student and a member of Harvard Universities Allied for Essential Medicines.