On Nov. 30, the UC Global Health Institute is sponsoring UC Global Health Day at UC Irvine, during which innovative global health work taking place at all ten of the UC campuses will be highlighted. UC aspirations to impact global health are to be commended, and now, more than ever, the UC is poised to become a leader in increasing global access to medicines. Our university patents more than three times as many innovations as its nearest university competitor, and many of these technologies are desperately needed in developing countries. As a research powerhouse, the UC has the leverage to ensure that affordable drugs and medical technologies are available in these countries by changing the way these discoveries are licensed to pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.
An issue arises, though, when promising technologies coming out of universities are brought to the market and, in the process, become unavailable to those without the financial resources to access them. In 2001, the humanitarian aid organization Doctors Without Borders identified one of these systemic failures in South Africa where millions of people were dying prematurely from HIV although effective medications were available elsewhere in the world. Doctors Without Borders approached Yale, the patent holder for the anti-retroviral medication stavudine, to see if they could contract a generic manufacturer to produce the drug exclusively for their patients. University officials stated they could not legally discuss the matter due to the exclusive license they had granted to pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb. Eventually activism that included students, community members and even the inventor of the medication resulted in a favorable outcome with the production of generic stavudine, at a 50-fold lower cost per pill, but millions were left suffering during the process.
In order to prevent further market failures, the students involved in the Yale-stavudine negotiations founded an organization called Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM) that has been working with universities since 2001 to change licensing processes to ensure that publicly funded health innovations reach the entire world. The concept is simple: adjust licensing language to allow universities to have greater control over their intellectual property. This could directly translate to generic drug production, differential pricing schemes for brand name drugs and other provisions that could make drugs and medical technologies available and affordable even in impoverished countries.
UAEM first brought this idea to the UC President Mark Yudof and the UC Regents in 2008, who then recommended that the Technology Transfer Advisory Committee evaluate the proposal. The Advisory Committee has corresponded with UAEM over the course of the last two years, but has unfortunately come to the conclusion that the UC’s current licensing procedures do not obstruct global access to our medical technologies. However, our current “un-obstructive” practices certainly do not include the necessary provisions to ensure that global access is achieved.
Meanwhile, universities and organizations around the world have developed and signed onto a Statement of Principles and Strategies for the Equitable Dissemination of Medical Technologies. The statement affirms the role of universities in public health and outlines steps that can be taken to protect the university’s ability to allow for greater global access to its innovations. While this statement is non-binding, it represents an important step toward adopting more comprehensive and binding policies. Unfortunately, although the UC participated in the development of this statement, it declined to add itself as a signatory.
As a leader in research and the advancement of the public good, the UC has an obligation to everyone who supports it to ensure that our discoveries reach those who need them. While initial overtures by UAEM have elicited a lackluster response from the committee designated to evaluate current UC policy, the administrations at individual campuses have expressed their support of global access licensing. Moreover, due to the shortcomings of the Statement of Principles signed by so many other institutions, the UC as a whole still has the opportunity to become a leader in this regard by enacting measures that improve upon this preliminary document.
We applaud the UC for establishing the Global Health Institute and we hope this implied commitment will result in policies that will lead to demonstrable increases in global access to the fruits of UC medical research. The UC already has the power and the ability to positively impact the health of millions; they only need the courage to act upon it.
Courtney Reynolds is a social ecology graduate student. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.