The Association of University Technology Managers has retracted an e-mail sent last week to its members urging them to sign a letter opposing various mechanisms being discussed by a World Health Organization working group that might increase access to life-saving medicines in developing nations by altering existing patenting and licensing criteria.
AUTM sent the e-mail to its members earlier this month requesting that they sign a letter from non-profit think-tank the Institute for Policy Innovation to WHO in advance of the agency’s Intergovernmental Working Group on Public Health, Innovation, and Intellectual Property, which is convening this week in Geneva.
The retraction and apology from AUTM President Jon Soderstrom was issued after various non-profit public policy and academic groups – and possibly AUTM members – criticized AUTM’s message to its members for being harmful to WHO negotiations and running counter to the organization’s recent efforts to adopt so-called “socially responsible” licensing tactics.
The WHO IGWG on Public Health, Innovation, and Intellectual Property was established in 2006 to prepare a global strategy and plan of action on essential health research to address conditions disproportionately affecting developing countries, according to the organization’s website.
The group, in session this week until May 3, is discussing alternatives to traditional patenting and licensing methods that may help developing nations gain access to medicines that have in the past been unavailable to its citizens due to cost or IP and licensing restrictions.
Examples of such alternatives include awarding cash prizes to companies to develop drugs for underserved disease populations, a medical R&D treaty that would require specific commitments from countries to provide funding for such diseases, and compulsory IP licensing provisions for developing nations.
The IGWG, which comprises WHO member states, held its first session in December 2006, and this week is working on the finishing touches of a global plan of action that it plans to present to the World Health Assembly slated to begin May 19 in Geneva.
Earlier this month, the Institute for Policy Innovation, a non-profit, public-policy think tank based in Lewisville, Texas, authored an open letter to the WHO in advance of this week’s working group meeting expressing its concerns about the alternative mechanisms being considered by the IGWG.
In the letter, the full text of which can be seen here, IPI states that it supports the IGWG’s previously stated goal of creating a global action plan to ensure ”needs-driven, essential health research and development relevant to diseases that disproportionately affect developing countries,” but that this access is best served by a “property-rights based system of innovation.”
The letter also “reminds WHO members that patients around the world count on continued medical innovation; successful commercialization of science and technology transfer depends on effective intellectual property protection, reliance on market forces, and consistent government support for science to bring new and better medicines to the market; and governments have tried, and failed, many times in the past to bring drugs to market on their own, without private sector support.”
The letter calls on IGWG participants “to focus their deliberations on promoting constructive, practical incentives to complement and expand upon the current property-based system to promote R&D for diseases which predominantly affect developing countries,” and states that “by promoting such constructive measures, instead of unproven and potentially damaging initiatives, the IGWG members can make a real and positive contribution to global R&D, including that for diseases of the developing world.”
Two weeks ago, James Love, director of non-profit public policy watchdog group Knowledge Ecology International, reported in his blog in the Huffington Post and on various industry message boards that on April 16, AUTM members had received an e-mail from AUTM headquarters informing them of the open letter from IPI and asking them to sign it.
AUTM’s original e-mail, which can be seen here, stated that “prize systems, a medical R&D treaty, and compulsory patent pools are being advocated as alternatives to patents and IP protections at the April 28 [IGWG] meeting. These solutions could pose a challenge to our current and very successful system of innovation and tech transfer.” The message also instructed AUTM members wishing to sign the open letter to contact IPI.
Soon after the e-mail was sent out, Love penned a critique of AUTM’s stance, which was followed by criticism from other groups including student-run Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, which is based at Yale University, where Soderstrom also serves as director of the Office of Cooperative Research.
“It just seems that the AUTM missive was saying that the [approach] that we’re accustomed to that works for biotech and pharma — patent it, license it, and collect royalties — is the only way. In fact, knowledge transfer isn’t just limited to IP licensing.”
Last week, Soderstrom told BTW that Love’s column was a “gross misrepresentation” of AUTM’s position, and that it in fact supported the discussion of provisions that could ensure access to essential medicines for developing nations.
In particular, Soderstrom cited AUTM’s “Nine Points” white paper published last year, which contained a section addressing the need for universities to engage in socially responsible licensing practices (see BTW, 3/19/2007).
Late last week, however, in the face of criticism from various groups, Soderstrom issued another e-mail blast to AUTM members apologizing for what he called “a serious miscommunication” by AUTM. That e-mail, the full text of which can be seen on the UAEM website, also said that, as written, the original e-mail “could be read as an endorsement by AUTM of the positions espoused by IPI with respect to the WHO negotiations. That would be incorrect. The AUTM board did not take any action to either endorse IPI’s position of sign onto the open letter.”
Summarizing AUTM’s position this week, Soderstrom wrote in an e-mail to BTW that “people read too much into the e-mail blast item. I am sincerely sorry that it seemed to send a message contrary to one of our core values/principles espoused in the Nine Points [document].
“Recognizing this fact, we took the opportunity to make a positive, explicit statement about what we/AUTM truly believe, and are working hard every day developing ever more innovative solutions to help address this critical need,” he added. “I hope that our message helps dispel any lingering misunderstandings.”
Last week, before AUTM sent its second e-mail, IPI President Thomas Giovanetti told BTW that IPI had intended to publish the letter in a major newspaper either in advance of the IGWG meeting this week, or later this month in advance of the World Health Assembly. It appears as if the latter will now be the case, as Giovanetti said this week that the letter has not yet been published with signatories.
“I think it's clear that AUTM's head sent out the e-mail he sent out because he was under pressure – but I did not interpret it as withdrawing its support,” Giovanetti wrote in an e-mail to BTW this week. “The activist groups put enormous pressure on [Soderstrom] and he felt he had to put something out.
“What [Soderstrom] said was that AUTM wasn't endorsing the letter, but we never asked AUTM as an organization to endorse the letter – we asked individual AUTM members to consider signing the letter, which I think they are still free to do should they choose to do so,” Giovanetti added.
Furthermore, Giovanetti asserted that the IPI’s letter was very “temperate and constructive,” and that groups such as UAEM essentially blew the matter out of proportion.
“Interestingly, in UAEM's communications they described IPI as an ‘anti-access’ organization, which I find to be laughable,” Giovanetti told BTW. “The fact that we don't support tearing down the intellectual property system and replacing it with failed and unproven mechanisms like prize systems doesn't mean that we are anti-access.
“What's destructive is the activist-driven rhetoric at IGWG about how ‘patents are killing people,’” Giovanetti added. “Instead of discussing how we might better distribute the apples on the tree, they want to chop down the tree and plant something in its place that has always failed.
“It's tragic, really. But it's typical of these activist groups to use deceptive and false rhetoric in pursuit of their ideological goals,” he added.
Whether AUTM sought to endorse IPI’s position or merely instruct its members to consider doing so is open to interpretation based on the language in the various e-mails. Regardless, it appears as if other members of the academic and public-policy communities, including even AUTM members, may have influenced AUTM’s leadership to retract its original e-mail to its membership.
This week, Carol Mimura, assistant vice chancellor of intellectual property and industry research alliances at the University of California-Berkeley, and the primary author of the so-called “socially responsible” licensing clause in last year’s Nine Points white paper, told BTW that she was “appalled” when her office received the original missive from AUTM headquarters.
“I thought it was very bad for the profession,” Mimura said. “I think that what’s lacking in our profession is alignment of the goals. [At UC-Berkeley], we believe that we want to deploy innovations to maximize societal benefit. But if that’s not the goal everywhere, then it is not surprising that people disagree if one system or another is good, or that they are wedded to a system in which they can only judge something as a success if it increases the number of licenses or increases the amount of licensing revenue.”
Mimura said that she thinks compulsory licensing provisions or incentive-based programs such as a prize system should not be seen as a replacement for traditional patenting and licensing methods. Instead, she said, they can co-exist
“Essentially, I believe that every single viable approach should be used to deploy university innovations for public benefit,” she said. “It just seems that the AUTM missive was saying that the [approach] that we’re accustomed to that works for biotech and pharma — patent it, license it, and collect royalties — is the only way. In fact, knowledge transfer isn’t just limited to IP licensing.”
Mimura also said that most tech-transfer offices know that “even within their strict patent licensing systems” there are different “flavors of licenses” depending on whether the deal involves a startup company, software, drug technology, digital media, et cetera.
As such, she added, it was hard to understand why AUTM would move to support the position that various incentive programs, prizes, and compulsory licensing agreements might harm the current patenting and licensing system.
“We always have depended on logical people [in our profession] seeing that it does more harm not to provide access [to technologies] in [countries like] South Africa than to provide them, but it didn’t work this time,” Mimura said.