Roche throws HIV blindness drug Valcyte into patent pool

In the past, Roche ($RHHBY), like Big Pharma companies normally do, has done everything in its power to protect its drug Valcyte from low-cost generic competition. Now, however, the company has signed an agreement with the Medicines Patent Pool to surrender Valcyte's patent and make the drug available in developing countries by slashing costs by up to 90%.

The supply agreement between the Swiss drug giant and the UN-backed public health initiative will slash prices on the cytomegalovirus drug, used to prevent an infection that can cause blindness in HIV patients. To aid local production, Roche will negotiate licenses with and transfer technology to generics producers, the company said. The deal covers 138 emerging nations, and it can be expanded if necessary.

Right now, eye injections are used to treat cytomegaloviral infections in developing countries. That limits access because trained staff and proper facilities are often lacking. The partnership should dramatically improve access to treatment, as Valcyte is a pill rather than an injection.

The infection affects around 1 in 10 people living with HIV, Roche said. "With medicines available, HIV treatment providers can work on wider diagnosis and treatment and prevent avoidable blindness in people living with HIV," Greg Perry, executive director of the Medicines Patent Pool, said in a statement.

The agreement marks a turning point with Valcyte. Roche has fought multiple times to fend off would-be copycats. The first patent challenge came from Ranbaxy Laboratories in 2010, and in 2011 Roche's Genentech unit sued both Sandoz and Apotex for planning to sell their generic versions. But the company was willing to bend on its IP stance to help the cause. "This agreement demonstrates how working together can improve the availability of treatments for people in resource-limited countries," Daniel O'Day, Roche Pharma's COO, said in the company's release.

Previously, there's been some reluctance to join the Medicines Patent Pool, and critics expressed reservations about competition when the pool made its first agreement with a pharma company. But MPP has since struck several arrangements. The Roche deal follows pacts with Gilead Sciences ($GILD) in 2011 and ViiV Healthcare, GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) and Pfizer's ($PFE) joint venture, earlier this year.

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