Last Wednesday, the National Institutes on
Health refused to null patents on the AIDS drug Norvir despite the
fact that the drug was developed with the help of government
funding. This refusal gives Abbott Laboratories, its manufacturer,
a monopoly on this type of drug and free rein to effectively
quintuple the price from $1.71 per day to $8.57 per day, far beyond
the reach of many who depend on the drug to stay alive. While it is
one thing for a company to hold on to a patent for a cosmetic or
non-essential medical procedure it developed independently, it is
abhorrent that a corporation is able to contain the proliferation
of a critically important drug developed, in part, with taxpayer
dollars.

Mira Levitan

While patenting lifesaving drugs in the name of profit is in
itself ridiculous, this case is a particular outrage because the
government helped offset development costs. In reaching its
decision, the NIH cited the 24-year-old Bayh-Dole act, which gives
companies the ability to patent inventions that are developed with
the help of taxpayer money as long as they are readily available to
the public. While the drug is available to all, the fact that
Abbott Laboratories alone can sell it means that they are free to
inflate the price as much as they please. Considering that AIDS
patients will never willingly abandon treatment because of high
prices, drug manufacturers who don’t have to be competitive
have nothing to stop them from artificially raising prices to
unreasonable levels.

Upon further investigation, it becomes clear that Abbott
Laboratories’ decision to quintuple Norvir prices is part of
a larger financial scheme. The high prices are only put into effect
when the drug is combined with medications made by other companies
— not when it is purchased along with other Abbott
Laboratories products. Norvir is a drug that increases the
effectiveness of other HIV medications; it is used as part of a
large “drug cocktail.” While Abbott is the only company
that can sell Norvir, the drug can be used with a wide variety of
other “cocktail” medications that are not manufactured
by Abbott.

Since the drastic price hike only affects patients buying Norvir
independently of other Abbott products, there is a strong incentive
to purchase solely Abbott drugs. Therefore, the patent and pricing
scheme force people to use not only Abbott-brand Norvir, but also
other medicines which are made by Abbott Laboratories.

Because American-issued patents apply only within the United
States, generic versions of Norvir are legal outside of the U.S.
and can be purchased for as much as 80 to 90 percent less in Canada
or Britain. The low prices of generic Norvir abroad suggest that
Abbott Laboratories is artificially inflating its price in the
United States with the protection of the government. This potential
price hike is unacceptable, and the patent on the drug should be
revoked to effectively rescind Abbott’s monopoly powers.
While the NIH has made its decision, the misguided ruling can be
overruled by the Secretary of Health and Human Services. The AIDS
epidemic is simply too severe to allow companies such as Abbott
Laboratories to charge obscene, uncompetitive prices for treatments
needed to survive.

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