Protests Target Universities Profiting From AIDS Research

The University of Minnesota expects to collect more than $300 million in royalties from its patent on Ziagen, an AIDS drug sold by GlaxoSmithKline
PLC. Amanda Swarr, a 28-year-old graduate student at the school, thinks that is outrageous.
"We are furious at the university’s complicity in the denial of access to life-saving medication to poor people across the world," Ms. Swarr wrote in a leaflet that she proffered on a snowy street corner in Minneapolis during her spring break. "We are disgusted."

The University of Minnesota expects to collect more than $300 million in royalties from its patent on Ziagen, an AIDS drug sold by GlaxoSmithKline
PLC. Amanda Swarr, a 28-year-old graduate student at the school, thinks that is outrageous.
"We are furious at the university’s complicity in the denial of access to life-saving medication to poor people across the world," Ms. Swarr wrote in a leaflet that she proffered on a snowy street corner in Minneapolis during her spring break. "We are disgusted."

Students at the University of Minnesota are holding a teach-in today, energized by the success that students at Yale University claimed for pressuring drug maker Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. to relinquish patent rights for an AIDS drug in South Africa.

Student protests are as old as formal education. What gives the AIDS protests extra leverage is that a few universities hold patents on key AIDS medications. Other schools’ endowments hold stock in companies making AIDS drugs.

The current wave of indignation, students say, comes from the sheer scope of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, where 25 million people are infected with HIV, the AIDS virus, and from the disparity of treatment between rich and poor, black and white.

Seeds of the protest at the University of Minnesota were sown in October 1999, when the school won the largest settlement of a patent-infringement case of any U.S. university. GlaxoSmithKline agreed to pay the university royalties on world-wide sales of the AIDS drug Ziagen, which sells in the U.S. for about $3,898 for a year’s supply. Since 1999, the university has received about $15 million in royalties.

Activists at Yale — where the student protests against AIDS-drug prices began — were keyed up by a Feb. 14 letter sent to the university’s Office for Cooperative Research by Doctors Without Borders, a humanitarian, not-for-profit group. The letter asked Yale to use its patent on Zerit to pressure Bristol-Myers Squibb to lower the price of the medicine and release its patent rights in poor countries.

By March 9, about 600 Yale students, faculty and researchers signed a petition demanding that Yale push Bristol-Myers to make the drug affordable.

On March 15, Bristol-Myers Squibb became the first drug company to announce it would relinquish patent rights for an AIDS drug in South Africa. Now the students say they won’t let up until they see evidence that Bristol-Myers actually does what it has said it would do. Last week, more than 200 students showed up for a teach-in on the New Haven campus.

Author: Rachel Zimmerman

News Service: Wall Street Journal: Apr 12, 2001