Feature story

Experts meet on advancing access to HIV treatment

10 September 2013

At the end of 2012, 9.7 million people worldwide had access to antiretroviral (ARV) therapy in low- and middle-income countries. Credit: UNAIDS

Experts call for increased access to life-saving HIV treatment. The call, made during a meeting held in New York on 4-5 September, follows the recommendations made last year by the independent Global Commission on HIV and the Law on improving access to HIV treatment.

The Global Commission’s landmark report recommended a new intellectual property framework for pharmaceuticals that would meet urgent public health needs while safeguarding the rights of inventors.

“While intellectual property protections are intended to provide an incentive for innovation, the evidence shows that excessive protection hinders access to affordable HIV treatment and other essential medicines,” Helen Clark, UN Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator told participants at the meeting convened by UNDP and UNAIDS. “Access to affordable, quality-assured pharmaceutical products remains an urgent priority for achieving the MDGs and improving health and development outcomes for poor and marginalized populations,” added Ms Clark.

At the end of 2012, 9.7 million people worldwide had access to antiretroviral (ARV) therapy in low- and middle-income countries, compared to just 300 000 people 10 years earlier. However, UNAIDS and the World Health Organisation estimate that another 16 million people are eligible to HIV treatment but lack access to it.

“We need solutions to increase access to life-saving HIV treatment and the recommendations of the Global Commission clearly outline how a people-centred approach can help ensure no one is left behind,” said Michel Sidibé, UNAIDS Executive Director. 

While intellectual property protections are intended to provide an incentive for innovation, the evidence shows that excessive protection hinders access to affordable HIV treatment and other essential medicines.

Helen Clark, UN Development Programme Administrator

The World Trade Organization's (WTO) Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, known as TRIPS, requires countries to abide to high intellectual property standards, including patent criteria that grant pharmaceutical companies long-term monopolies on medicines. When the TRIPS treaty was signed in 1994, it included terms that allow poor countries to produce or import cheaper medicines under specific circumstances. However, external pressure from wealthier countries has often prevented the application of such special clauses.

“The real crux of the Commission’s Recommendations was for a new intellectual property regime for pharmaceutical products – it is not enough to tweak the existing system,” said J.V.R. Prasada Rao, former Commissioner.

Talks at the meeting focused on strategies, tactics, and timelines to confront the growing need for HIV treatment, including how to make intellectual property laws work better for low-and middle-income countries. Next steps are under discussion.

“We should be encouraged that this meeting comes at a pivotal time when we are discussing the post-2015 development agenda, which presents us with significant opportunities,” said Michael Kirby, former Commissioner.