Who invented AZT? Though it sounds like a superfluous game-show question, the answer is at the center of a crucial health-care dispute. Azidothymidine, or AZT, is a drug that prolongs survival for people with AIDS. It is currently being manufacturered by a British pharmaceutical firm, Burroughs Wellcome. And the cost -- $3,000 a year per person -- brings in hundreds of millions in annual revenue for the company.
The problem, in practical terms, is that Burroughs Wellcome holds the patent on AZT; no other company can produce it. Barr Laboratories tried recently by asking the Food and Drug Administration for permission to produce a generic version of the drug. But Burroughs Welcome sued. Now the National Institutes of Health is considering legal action, insisting that the critical work done at the National Cancer Institute to bring AZT to AIDS patients should allow the U.S. scientists who worked on the project to be included on the patent as co-inventors. That would wrench control from Burroughs Wellcome and allow other firms to produce AZT too, dramatically lowering its cost.
The history of AZT's testing and approval as an AIDS treatment is a complex legal tangle to be sure. It centers on such hair-splitting questions as what, precisely, constitutes an invention or an inventor. But one thing is clear: AIDS is a lingering disease that painfully debilitates before it kills, and the epidemic will rise before it is brought under control. Until then, simple human compassion demands that society make available whatever medical treatment it can to the afflicted. Burroughs Wellcome's monopoly does precisely the opposite, in effect making the drug available only to those who can afford it. The NIH is walking a difficult line in even considering a challenge to the company's patent rights. Nonetheless, it must vigorously pursue the case.