The people against Gilead. Activists protest at the Brazilian patent office, calling for Gilead’s last sofosbuvir patent application to be rejected

Activists gathered at the Brazilian Patent Office (INPI) in Rio de Janeiro this week, and Gilead’s office in São Paulo. In Rio, activists called on INPI to reject Gilead’s last patent application on sofobuvir for the main drug used in the hepatitis C (HCV) cure. Outside Gilead’s office, avoidable deaths due to lack of access were remembered.

INPI’s rejection of this patent is the last remaining decision in order to secure the entry of generic versions of sofosbuvir in the Brazilian market, which would expand access to treatment for the disease that affects more than one million people in the country. 

In May 2018, the Brazilian drug regulatory agency (ANVISA) published the market authorization for a locally produced generic. According to a negotiation initiated by the Ministry of Health, the entry of the local generic competitor could reduce treatment cost by 80%, enabling expanded treatment and saving the public health system more than one billion reais (approx $250,000 USD).

Public health professionals and experts united

A motion was delivered to the INPI headquarters. The document calls for the rejection of the patent application signed by 222 health professionals and public health experts. The motion was approved at the 12th Brazilian Public Health Congress, attended by more than 8,000 participants.

When I found out that I had the disease the treatment was completely unaffordable for me… I’m here so more and more people can get treatment without going through everything I had to face – Coelho.

“To avoid the granting of the patent is a very important struggle in order to secure an affordable price for this treatment. When I found out that I had the disease the treatment was above 300,000 reais (approx $75,000 USD). It was completely unaffordable for me”, explains the businessman Leonardo Coelho, present at the stunt. He found out that he had the virus in 2015, but got treatment only in 2017, when he was in the more advanced stage of the disease. He got cured in 2017. “I’m here mobilized so more and more people can get treatment without going through everything I had to face.” 

The protesters used the sidewalk in front of INPI headquarters to play out the dispute over the drug. Gilead, represented by a giant executive was on one side and, on the other, the people in need of treatment were represented in yellow. A referee, in the middle, represented INPI, who has to decide in the next few days if it will grant the patent or not. 

At the Gilead offices in  São Paulo, an ‘executive’ dived into a pool full of money, surrounded by people lying down and wearing yellow. “While Gilead swims in money, we die”, was emblazoned across one of the banners.

“This is a crucial moment to protect the lives of people in Brazil infected by the HCV virus and who need treatment but cannot have access because the monopoly power and the high price charged by Gilead blocks the country from purchasing the drug in the quantities required to address all of the needs”, explained Pedro Villardi, coordinator of GTPI, a Brazilian civil society coalition that led the stunt. 

In Brazil, an estimated 657,000 people are in chronic stage of the disease and are immediately eligible for treatment. Since the introduction of direct-acting antivirals (DAAs) in 2015, around 25,000 people are being treated annually. In 2017 alone, 24,460 new cases were detected, revealing an urgent need to scale-up treatment in the country.