Every hour, around 30 children die of AIDS. On its corporate website, Johnson & Johnson makes a big deal about its “Giving in HIV/AIDS,” claiming to “work to prevent the spread of HIV and reduce the burden of AIDS on women and their families.” However, the Stop AIDS Campaign tells a different story. Johnson & Johnson is one of the few major pharmaceutical companies that is still refusing to negotiate with the Medicines Patent Pool to ensure that people waiting for life-saving HIV medicines can access them. Since Johnson & Johnson holds patents for some of the most vital and costly HIV drugs, their refusal to enter negotiations with the pool effectively cuts off access to these drugs for those who need it the most.
How the Patent Pool Ensures More People Are Treated
The Medicines Patent Pool is an organization dedicated to “increasing access to quality, safe, efficacious, more appropriate and affordable medicines, focusing on HIV/AIDS.” The Medicines Patent Pool website describes how it works:
With the patent pool model, multiple patents are ‘pooled’ and licensed out by one entity, in order to cut down on transaction costs for all parties involved. In the case of medicines, this allows more affordable and more adapted versions of patented drugs to be produced as generics, long before their 20-year patent terms run out.
The Pool is a win-win-win model, whereby patent holders are compensated for sharing their patents, generic manufacturers gain access to markets, and patients benefit more swiftly from appropriate and adapted medicines at more affordable prices.
The website provides further details, including a step-by-step walkthrough describing the process from negotiations with the patent holder through to the creation of sustainable low prices, meaning that more people can be treated for the same sum of money.
The Two Faces of Johnson & Johnson
According to Johnson & Johnson, it is already providing its HIV/AIDS medication to patients in sub-Saharan Africa at 85% less than the commercial price in the United States (via a royalty-free voluntary license agreement Aspen Pharmaceuticals, a South African Company). The discounted price amounts to $3 per day, or more than $1000 per year. According to the New Internationalist, if Johnson & Johnson joins the Medicines Patent Pool, the price of some HIV treatments would be reduced from around $1000 per year to less than $100 per year. Since Johnson & Johnson isn’t selling a lot of drugs in those countries at the moment, opening up its patent to allow for the production of inexpensive versions of its drugs for those most in need would not have a big impact on the company’s profits.
Johnson & Johnson’s refusal to enter into negotiations with the patent pool and find a solution that could truly save lives stands in stark contrast to its corporate “social good” campaigns. Johnson & Johnson is one of the main sponsors of the Million Moms Challenge, which is “engaging a million Americans with millions of mothers in the developing world around issues that directly impact pregnancy, childbirth, and children’s health.” It has promised to donate $1 for each person who signs on to the campaign, up to a grand total of $100,000 (or, on other pages, the campaign indicates that Johnson & Johnson will donate $100,000 if 100,000 people sign on — meaning 100,000 appears to be both the minimum and the maximum number). The call to action doesn’t indicate whether that number has been reached, how close they are, or what happens to your e-mail address once you sign on.
While a donation of $100,000 would certainly be useful, the impact of that donation (and all of the hype around it) is a drop in the bucket in comparison with both:
- the impact that a negotiated agreement with the Medicines Patent Pool could have; and,
- Johnson & Johnson’s $13.3 billion net earnings in 2010.
Could J&J Switch from “Tokenistic Efforts” To Joining a True Solution?
According to the Stop AIDS Campaign, Johnson & Johnson is expected to announce on December 19th whether it will change its position and join the patent pool. Rachel Edwards, a student member of the Stop AIDS Campaign said:
One of the problems in the past has been companies making small, tokenistic efforts to ease access to treatment. The Medicines Patent Pool is a solution which aims to be industry-wide, matching the scale of the challenge. If J&J’s decision is negative we won’t stop campaigning – with so many millions waiting for HIV treatment we will keep pressuring J&J to join until they change their mind.
This is the type of pressure that is needed. Rather than a token sign-on to an campaign that may result in an $100,000 donation, consider being part of a campaign that will get J&J to change its practices. Demand a solution, not a much-too-small band-aid.
Photo credit: jimcintosh on flickr