Access to Medicines

The rules that control production of medicines are known as TRIPS (Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights), and apply to any new drugs created. They work by granting ‘patents’ to pharmaceutical companies.

Patents mean that no other companies can sell a drug for 20 years – a ‘monopoly’ on selling the drug – so the pharmaceutical companies can charge as high a price as they like.

The patent system has made it is illegal to create generic versions of new ‘second’ and ‘third line’ ARVs, which have been recommended by the World Health Organisation and work much better than the older ‘first line’ drugs.

The lack of generic competition means these new drugs cost up to six times more than the older ones. Nearly 90% of the HIV drugs are made by generic companies in India, but because TRIPS came into effect there in 2005, the Indian companies have to keep making the older, less effective drugs.

Our campaigning works – after global protests, some changes were made to the patents system introduced by TRIPS, to help poorer countries access the new HIV medicines:

Medicines Patent Pool

The Medicines Patent Pool was set up in 2010, allowing new drugs to be made through ‘voluntary license’ partnerships between pharmaceutical and generic companies.

STOPAIDS is campaigning to convince other pharmaceutical companies, such as J&J (Tibotec) and Merck/MSD, to follow the lead of GSK and join the Pool – and to include poorer countries when issuing rights to use the shared patents. Although other types of voluntary license exist, they are often secretive and still exclude millions of people.

Robert Smith MP

Compulsory Licenses

Compulsory Licenses were introduced in 2003 to allow poorer countries to ‘override’ patents during national epidemics necessary when they are excluded from voluntary licences, or when voluntary licenses just don’t exist.

However, pharmaceutical companies and Western governments put pressure on poorer countries not to do so through trade negotiations, and pharmaceutical companies have even taken countries to court – as Bayer did in India in 2013.

STOPAIDS is campaigning for all countries to be able to use compulsory licences when necessary, and for the UK to support them to do so.

Patent Law Reform and ‘Evergreeening’

‘Evergreening’ is where pharmaceutical companies try to extend their patents beyond 20 years, by making small changes to the drug and then applying for a new patent. Governments have passed laws reforming their patent systems to prevent this happening – and have then been unsuccessfully taken to court by the pharmaceutical companies such as Novartis in India, or have been the target of secretive lobbying campaigns led by  Merck  in South Africa – which you can help South African activists to expose and challenge.


Our Research and Development model

The issue of high prices is the result of an ineffective and costly research and development (R&D) system that rewards new medicines with fixed-term monopolies (patents) and encourages unaffordable price setting. This patent-based system grants pharmaceutical companies monopolies, which allow them to charge exorbitant prices totally unconnected to the cost of developing and manufacturing the medicines. Urgent measures must be taken to ensure that people can afford the medicines they need. 

The other issue with the current model is that is prioritises R&D not according to public health need but according to the profit that stands to be made. This leads to skewed priorities that have life-threatening consequences. For example in the last 40 years we’ve only produced 2 new treatments for tuberculosis, a diseases that kills over 1.5 million people a year, but we’ve produced 14 new medicines for hay fever within the same time period!

Feeling enraged? Then join our MISSING MEDICINES campaign to fight for reform of this system.