Pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson announced Thursday that it would not enforce its patents on its AIDS drug Prezista in the world's poorest countries and throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
Offering cost relief to people infected with the HIV virus, J&J said it wanted to assure manufacturers that they can freely produce the generic version of the drug, darunavir, for sale in poor countries without fear of being accused of patent violation.
The new policy applies only to countries defined by the United Nations as Least Developed Countries, and also to sub-Saharan Africa, where the AIDS epidemic has been most intense.
"This new policy anticipates a greater future need to supply affordable generic versions of darunavir for the treatment of people living with HIV in the territory," J&J said, two days ahead of the annual World AIDS Day.
"We believe... that intellectual property should not be a barrier to ensuring a sustainable supply of medically acceptable darunavir in the world's poorest countries," Paul Stoffels, J&J's worldwide chairman for pharmaceuticals, said in a statement.
J&J markets the antiretroviral drug as Prezista through its subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals.
It is often administered together with other antiretroviral drugs, like the already widely available ritonavir, to protect HIV-infected patients from developing full-blown AIDS.
At the official US wholesale price, Prezista costs a user more than $34 a day or some $12,400 a year.
As a generic, though, the price can drop by 90 percent or more, Stoffels told AFP. Darunavir is currently produced by South Africa's Aspen Pharmaceuticals and sold locally for about $2.22 a dose, he said.
Stoffels said he expected the demand for darunavir to soar, with production launched in 10-15 factories worldwide to supply poor countries covered under the new patent protection announcement.