* Patent pool could save over $1 bln a year on AIDS drugs
* Will facilitate combination treatments
GENEVA, Dec 15 (Reuters) - The international health funding agency UNITAID has approved a plan to make treatment for AIDS more widely available in poor countries by pooling patents for drugs, the French-sponsored initiative said.
Pooling patents for treatments for AIDS will make newer medicines available at lower prices for low and middle-income countries, saving more than $1 billion a year, it said in a statement late on Monday.
The patent pool could make it possible to offer licences systematically to generic manufacturers, reducing prices and facilitating the combination of drugs from different makers into fixed-dose or one-pill combinations.
“UNITAID has now put in place a mechanism that will make medical advances work for the poor, while compensating companies for sharing their technology,” UNITAID Chairman Philippe Douste-Blazy said.
Patented medicines are often unaffordable for people in developing countries, as intellectual property and trade rules prevent generics manufacturers in those countries from making cheaper versions.
With AIDS the problem is compounded by the fact that people infected with the HIV virus can develop resistance to treatment and require newer medicines if the original drugs stop working.
The patent pool will allow manufacturers of generic drugs to make low-cost versions of widely patented new medicines by creating a system for patent holders to license their technology in exchange for royalties, UNITAID said.
This will spur competition and bring down the price of new medicines, it said.
UNITAID has identified 19 products from nine companies for potential inclusion into the pool.
The pool will help develop fixed-dose combinations which mix drugs from different companies in a single treatment, it said. Clinical evidence suggests these combinations are the best way for patients to receive safe, effective treatment but patents have created barriers to developing the combinations.
UNITAID will provide start-up funds of up to $4 million over the next year to set up a licensing agency to run the pool which will start operating in mid-2010.
Medical advocacy group Medecins Sans Frontieres welcomed the move and called on drugmakers to contribute patents quickly.
“Now that the pool has been given a green light, patent holders need to move from expressions of general support to firm and formal licence commitments,” its policy director, Michelle Childs, said in a statement.
UNITAID is a drug-purchasing consortium that provides long-term funding for the treatment of HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis in developing countries. (Reporting by Jonathan Lynn)