Special Communication
October 17, 2001

Do Patents for Antiretroviral Drugs Constrain Access to AIDS Treatment in Africa?

Author Affiliations

Author Affiliations: Center for International Development and Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass (Dr Attaran); International Intellectual Property Institute, Washington, DC (Ms Gillespie-White).

JAMA. 2001;286(15):1886-1892. doi:10.1001/jama.286.15.1886

Public attention and debate recently have focused on access to treatment of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) in poor, severely affected countries, such as those in Africa. Whether patents on antiretroviral drugs in Africa are impeding access to lifesaving treatment for the 25 million Africans with human immunodeficiency virus infection is unknown. We studied the patent statuses of 15 antiretroviral drugs in 53 African countries. Using a survey method, we found that these antiretroviral drugs are patented in few African countries (median, 3; mode, 0) and that in countries where antiretroviral drug patents exist, generally only a small subset of antiretroviral drugs are patented (median and mode, 4). The observed scarcity of patents cannot be simply explained by a lack of patent laws because most African countries have offered patent protection for pharmaceuticals for many years. Furthermore, in this particular case, geographic patent coverage does not appear to correlate with antiretroviral treatment access in Africa, suggesting that patents and patent law are not a major barrier to treatment access in and of themselves. We conclude that a variety of de facto barriers are more responsible for impeding access to antiretroviral treatment, including but not limited to the poverty of African countries, the high cost of antiretroviral treatment, national regulatory requirements for medicines, tariffs and sales taxes, and, above all, a lack of sufficient international financial aid to fund antiretroviral treatment. We consider these findings in light of policies for enhancing antiretroviral treatment access in poor countries.