In 2004 [AIDS] was burning across Africa. Treatments were available but expensive, and everyone wanted to expand Africa’s access to them. Drug-industry critics on Capitol Hill pressed President Bush to solve the problem by breaking Western manufacturers’ patents. He said no and came up with a better plan.
At the time, I worked at the Food and Drug Administration. Generic-drug makers, mostly in India, promised cheap versions of AIDS drugs, but there was reason to worry about their quality. My colleagues and I thought that patients in Africa deserved the same first-rate treatments Americans got.
The drug industry worked with the government to develop their AIDS medicines into cheaper combination pills. The FDA put these products through a process for “tentative” FDA approval without the expense of full-blown clinical trials. The U.S. government purchased these pills in bulk and distributed them widely in Africa.
President Biden now faces a similar moment of peril and opportunity. America needs to help combat Covid-19 in low- and middle-income countries. The White House is under pressure to suspend patent protections for vaccines so foreign firms can start producing them.
The U.S. government can put additional resources behind the immediate development of more manufacturing capability, building facilities to make the starting materials and buying more of the specialized mixing machines.