GlaxoSmithklieDespite arguments from the pharma sector that the use of patents is a vital and necessary means of protecting revenue, many of the worst affected in a health crisis would simply be unable to afford potentially life-saving medication in the absence of alternatives offered by generic drug companies.

It is encouraging, then, that GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), a British drugs giant, announced last week that it would waive the patent restrictions for its HIV drugs to allow generic drugs manufacturers to copy and sell them in low-income countries.

A new report issued by the European Union has found that big pharmaceutical companies may be relying on the patent system to extend the life of so-called blockbuster drugs and prevent generic drugs from getting to the market. So, any sign that the industry has recognised the importance of generic drugs towards combating disease and saving lives is welcome.

Nor is this turnaround limited to antiretroviral medicines to fight AIDS, where the pharma majors have already ceded ground to cheaper generics in most of the developing world. Swiss drug company Novartis, in alliance with the non-profit Institute for OneWorld Health, has announced a partnership to conduct research on drugs for a type of diarrhoea that kills 1.6 million children each year in the developing world. This would involve Novartis relaxing its patent restrictions to give OneWorld access to its proprietary research on cystic fibrosis.

Under the Doha declaration on the TRIPS agreement and public health, governments can issue compulsory licences that force the exclusive rights holder to grant use to others for the manufacture of patented drugs in case of public health crises. However, that is not a complete answer to the problem, as developing countries sometimes lack the technical expertise to produce the drugs they need and the TRIPS agreement does not allow for drugs manufactured under compulsory licences to be exported.

One solution is the Unitaid patent pool drug purchasing facility, which aims to encourage patent holders to voluntarily licence their right to the patent pool. Unitaid is an international facility for the purchase of drugs against HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. The patent pool centre’s on finding other sources, such as large foundations and public funds, to pay drug companies to carry out R&D for new drugs. But the success of the pool is far from certain. Until pharma companies can be persuaded to come on-board, decisions such as GSK's ought to be welcomed.