IN THE LATE 1980s, while fear and prejudice stymied global progress against the AIDS pandemic, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched a publicly funded program to translate basic HIV research into lifesaving medicines.
One grant went to a team led by John Erickson at Abbott Laboratories, where, in his words, it “catalyzed the development of [Abbott’s] antiviral program” at a time when such efforts “were largely nonexistent in the pharmaceutical industry.” The government money “facilitated the research that led directly to the development” of ritonavir—one of the most important HIV medicines to date. Ritonavir, taken in combination with other HIV medicines, makes them more effective. It’s a key treatment for people who have developed resistance to first-line drugs.
In many countries Abbott patented ritonavir and numerous variations; one of Abbott’s patents for a combination product will not expire until 2026. Despite the public’s investment, Abbott aggressively asserts a high-priced monopoly around the world, charging many times what generics would cost. (In some of the few countries where ritonavir combinations are not patented—through Abbott’s inaction or the government’s refusal—a combination drug runs only about $450 per year.)
The biggest problem: Abbott’s patents and prices prevent economies of scale in generic drug production and donor purchasing, restricting the world’s ability to improve HIV treatment and prevention in countries from Vietnam to Colombia. What’s more, Abbott’s behavior discourages development of lifesaving combination therapies that bundle the drug with non-Abbott HIV medicines.