04/29/2011 03:21 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2011

MSF Calls On Johnson & Johnson To Do More For HIV/AIDS Patients

USAID reports that over 33.3 million people currently suffer from HIV/AIDS around the world. The condition is the leading cause of death in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the fourth leading cause of death worldwide.

According to Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), a nonprofit medical organization that is on the frontline fighting to provide affordable options for HIV/AIDS sufferers, pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson isn't helping. The company has come under fire from MSF for refusing to release its patents on rilpivirine, darunavir, and etravirine -- three HIV drugs that are vital to battling the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

MSF issued a press release April 25, highlighting accusations that the big pharma is endangering the lives of HIV sufferers.

“Pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson is putting the lives of people living with HIV at stake by refusing to participate in the Medicines Patent Pool, a mechanism designed to lower prices of HIV medicines and increase access to them for people in the developing world”

The MSF website explains that The Medicines Patent Pool is a program that reduces costs of medications by licensing patents to other manufacturers and creating a competitive environment for generics to be made. This would help create affordable versions of the drugs and would increase access in developing countries that often aren’t able to keep up with rising costs. Because the Pool is voluntary, however, the system is unable to function without the participation of Pharm giants like Johnson & Johnson.

MSF, which currently treats over 170,000 people living with HIV, reports that patients around the world have begun to develop resistance to the outdated treatments, explains why it is so important to facilitate greater access to new, currently high-priced, antiretrovirial drugs (ARVs) like the ones protected by J&J’s patents.

“High prices mean patients in poor countries continue to be relegated to second-class care, with no choice but to take older, more toxic drugs we would no longer use in the U.S., and with almost no treatment options when the virus becomes resistant to the limited number of drugs available,” said Sophie Delaunay, executive director of MSF-USA. “By putting its HIV drug patents in the pool, Johnson & Johnson has a unique opportunity to transform this situation and save lives worldwide. Instead, it has chosen to turn its back on these patients.”

Johnson & Johnson maintains that it is doing all it can to provide assistance combat the HIV pandemic, stating on its website:

“We have a responsibility to help create a world where people across all economic and social circumstances can access the treatments they need. To enhance access to our health care products, we have many programs for those who cannot afford our medicines.”

These programs include agreements with companies that produce the drugs as generics and sell them to “least developed nations” at 85 percent reduced cost. MSF representatives believe this isn’t going far enough. MSF insists that despite the price reduction, the cost is still too high for most patients who need the drugs and the coverage is extremely limited.

“The licenses also exclude many patients living in developing countries…excluding all of Latin America, Central Asia and most of the Caribbean and South East Asia.”

MSF has issued a letter to Johnson & Johnson in the hopes that they will reconsider their approach, but the company has made it clear that it does not intend to change its stance.

Meanwhile, millions continue to face climbing costs and limited options. Avert, an international HIV charity, reports the situation is dire.

“For most Africans living with HIV, ARVs are still not available -- less than 4 in 10 of those in need of treatment are receiving it. Millions are not even receiving treatment for opportunistic infections, which affect individuals whose immune systems have been weakened by HIV infection. These facts reflect the world’s continuing failure, despite the progress of recent years, to mount a response that matches the scale and severity of the global AIDS epidemic.”