In remarks prepared for the 19th International AIDS Conference, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) today called for reforming patent laws that boost pharmaceutical industry profits and make HIV/AIDS medicine so expensive in the United States that many patients cannot afford treatment and die.
"To me, one of the great moral issues of our day is that there are people suffering and, in some cases, dying because they are not able to afford a medicine that can be produced for pennies per treatment," Sanders said.
The senator cited the example of one drug - Atripla - which costs more than $25,000 per person per year in the United States while a generic, FDA-approved version of the same drug costs less than $200 per patient per year for a U.S. government program in developing countries.
High costs for drugs are the major reason waiting lists for the federally-funded AIDS Drug Assistance Program reached a high of 9,298 people last year, and there are still almost 2,000 patients in the United States waiting for help. Sanders welcomed a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announcement last week that it will release $80 million to eliminate waiting lists, but he said the extra funding does not address the high cost of the medicine. The $80 million to help about 2,000 AIDS patients instead could help hundreds of thousands of patients if low-cost generic drugs were made available.
In the United States, approximately 1.2 million people are living with HIV, according to the Centers for Disease Control. According to the World Health Organization, a staggering 34 million people around the globe are living with HIV/AIDS and 2.7 million more are infected each year.
To lower costs for AIDS drugs everywhere, Sanders introduced legislation that would establish a multi-billion-dollar prize fund to replace the current system of rewarding drug innovation with monopoly rights to new drugs.
Experts estimate that the nearly $10 billion U.S. market for AIDS drugs could be supplied at generic prices for $1 billion. So even after spending $3 billion per year on the prize fund and $1 billion on the products, there would be a huge overall savings for taxpayers and consumers.
"The bottom line is that the goal of our laws and policies for medicines must be to develop drugs as quickly as possible, drugs that are the most effective we can find for the diseases people are facing, and to get them out to every person who needs them as soon as possible. We must find a way to reward innovators for developing these new medicines in a way that does not bankrupt governments and that does not force any of those who need a lifesaving drug to wait, suffer, and in some cases, die before it becomes affordable," Sanders said.