Agreement has been reached for a patent pool for AIDS medicines, which will start up in mid-2010 and is expected to generate savings of more than $1 billion a year.

Establishment of the long-proposed patent pool was finally agreed this week by the Executive Board of UNITAID, an international drug funding agency which is a unit of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

UNITAID will provide the pool with start-up funds of up to $4 million over the next year, to enable low- and middle-income countries to access newer HIV/AIDS medicines in patient-adapted form at lower prices.

The initiative will enable generics manufacturers to produce cheaper versions of widely-patented new drugs, by creating a “common space” for patent holders to license their technologies in exchange for royalties, thus spurring competition and bringing down further the prices of vital new and effective medicines, says UNITAID.

Following consultations with a number of companies including Gilead Sciences, Tibotec, Merck and Sequoia Pharmaceuticals, the agency has identified 19 products from nine companies for potential inclusion into the pool to facilitate the development of fixed-dose combinations (FDCs) that combine several medicines into one pill, rather than several tablets a day. FDCs are the best way for patents to access safe, effective treatment but, until now, patents have created barriers to developing them through combining newer and more effective drugs from different companies.

“FDCs are especially important in the treatment of children, who make up 10% of current treatment needs,” said UNITAID’s executive secretary, Jorge Bermudez. “The patent pool will greatly help us accomplish our mission of scaling up treatment access, particularly for specific target groups otherwise neglected by the market – that is, children and people who fail on older therapies,” he added.

Ellen ‘t Hoen, UNITAID’s spokeswoman for the patent pool, said the initiative has attracted “enormous interest from companies and political support from numerous constituencies around the globe,” and added: “we're now ready to move to the next phase - reaching agreements with companies to get the drugs out.”

The pool has been supported by international aid agency Medecins sans Frontiers (MSF), which on September 30 launched an email writing campaign calling on Abbott Laboratories, Boehringer Ingelheim, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Johnson & Johnson, Gilead Sciences, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck & Co, Pfizer and Sequoia to put their HIV drug patents into the pool.

- UNITAID was set up in 2006 by France, Brazil, Chile, Norway and the UK to increase access to HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis drug treatments, financed by the tax on airline tickets.