Some American pharmaceutical companies are considering joining a global humanitarian effort to provide cheaper AIDS drugs in poor nations. Unfortunately, Johnson & Johnson is no longer among them.
The company announced last week that three drugs for treating HIV and AIDS — including one developed with the help of American taxpayers — would not be made available to a nonprofit hoping to improve access to them in developing countries. The decision has sparked fiery criticism of the company, and it shows a need for further efforts to resolve this conflict between public need and private profits.
Johnson & Johnson has an obligation to its shareholders to make money, and it certainly does that. But it must balance that with its social responsibilities.
The Medicines Patent Pool made its pitch to Johnson & Johnson and other pharmaceutical companies on humanitarian grounds. Formed in 2010, the organization makes patent-protected drug formulas available to manufacturers who produce generic drugs at lower prices. Patents typically require such manufacturers to wait 20 years to start selling cheaper versions of drugs, enabling the companies that develop them to reap deserved rewards.
But this also makes drugs unaffordable to many people, especially in places like Africa, where the AIDS epidemic still rages at a staggering rate. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, more than 1.9 million people died from AIDS in 2009, and 1.8 million more were infected with HIV. The region is home to 10 percent of the world's population but 70 percent of its AIDS cases.
The nonprofit Doctors Without Borders says the patent pool is the best way to make the latest treatments available to HIV patients in Africa and elsewhere. The pool has reached a licensing deal with Gilead Sciences, and it's still in talks with other drug makers, including Viiv Healthcare, a joint venture of Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline.
Johnson & Johnson has raised legitimate concerns, including that some developing countries lack the advanced health-care facilities to ensure the drugs are delivered properly, and not in a way that decreases their effectiveness. The company also says it maintains agreements with generic manufacturers and makes some AIDS drugs and vaccines available to troubled populations at deep discounts.
Clearly, though, a critical need persists for more access to medicines for people with HIV and AIDS. And highly profitable health-care companies bear much of the responsibility for figuring out how to meet that need.