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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Josh Marcus

Johnson and Johnson shares licence for tuberculosis drug after novelist’s viral campaign

Getty Images for Allied-THA

Pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson announced on Thursday that a Swiss nonprofit will distribute a lower-cost generic version of a popular tuberculosis drug in low- and middle-income countries. The move was celebrated by medical advocates and celebrities like novelist John Green, who publicly pressure the company in recent days to expand access in a high-profile social media campaign.

The move will allow Stop TB Partnership to offer licences to tender, procure, and supply generic versions of SIRTURO, otherwise known as bedaquiline, in 44 new countries, including those where J&J’s patent remains in effect, nearly doubling the reach of the company tuberculosis treatment.

“In my knowledge, I can’t recall a similar deal to this,” Brenda Waning, chief of Global Drug Facility, a partner in distributing the drugs, told Forbes. She said she hopes the project can “set a model” for other companies.

John Green
— (Getty Images for Allied-THA)

Even though it is curable, tuberculosis is the world’s deadliest infectious disease, killing 1.5 million people a year, according to the World Health Organization.

At $272 for a six-month course, some lower-income countries can’t afford to buy SIRTURO, preventing patients from accessing life-saving care.

That status quo inspired Fault in Our Stars novelist John Green to publicly pressure Johnson & Johnson to relinquish its patent. The company’s primary patent on the drug was set to expire in July, but advocates feared J&J would use a secondary patent to keep the drug out of generic circulation until 2027, an intellectual property practice known as “evergreening.”

“In those years, six MILLION people who need access to this drug will be unable to get it, leading to an increase in drug resistant tuberculosis and hundreds of thousands of needless deaths,” Mr Green recently wrote on Instagram. “Tuberculosis is curable and it’s high time for Johnson and Johnson to allow the cure to become available to the millions who can’t afford it.”

Mr Green’s followers briefly made #PatientsNotPatents a trending topic on Twitter.

In April, Doctors Without Borders also called on the drug company to make the treatment more available.

“We are deeply concerned that the persistent high price of bedaquiline will continue to block countries from rolling out the newer, shorter, game-changing, all-oral regimens for treating deadly, drug-resistant forms of TB,” Christophe Perrin, a tuberculosis pharmacist with the group, said in a statement.

Before the announcement, Johnson & Johnson responded to calls from Mr Green on Twitter, replying that it already had a partnership with Stop TB Partnership, though its donation of 666,000 courses of SIRTURO to 159 countries since launching the drug in 2012 paled in comparison to global deaths from tuberculosis each year.

The company has since told Medpage Today that it decided to allow the generic drugs in June, before the pressure campaign began.

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