World TB Day: Treating the untreatable

Fighting drug-resistant tuberculosis and pushing for access to essential medicines

An MSF doctor consults with a patient receiving treatment for extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis in Mumbai, India.
INDIA 2016 © Atul Loke/Panos Pictures
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Although it can be prevented and successfully treated, tuberculosis (TB) is one of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases, responsible for 1.6 million deaths in 2017, according to the World Health Organization. While substantial strides have been made in the fight against the disease, patients battling drug-resistant forms of TB still face grueling treatment regimens and intense social stigma. On World TB Day, March 24, learn about how the Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) team at our clinic in Mumbai, India, combine personalized medical and psychosocial care to treat patients suffering from extremely complex cases of drug-resistant TB.

We’re fighting to ensure more people have access to the latest and most effective treatments as well. In February, two tuberculosis survivors filed a patent challenge in India to try to block Johnson & Johnson (J&J) from extending its monopoly on the TB drug bedaquiline, a medicine critical in the treatment of drug-resistant forms of TB.

The World Health Organization recommends bedaquiline as a core part of a new, all-oral treatment regimen for DR-TB that would relegate toxic older drugs to last-resort options only. But this medicine will only reach the people who need it most if J&J prices it affordably and registers it widely—or stops standing in the way of the production of cheaper generic versions.

If this new patent is granted, J&J’s monopoly on bedaquiline would be extended from 2023 to 2027, keeping cheaper generic versions of the drug off the market for an additional four years. This strategy of “patent evergreening” through the filing of additional, often unmerited, patents is a common tactic used by corporations to extend monopolies on drugs beyond the standard 20 years. J&J’s new patent application is for a new formulation of an old drug that does not merit a patent under India’s current law.

“I lost my hearing when I was 24 because of the brutal side effect of an injected DR-TB drug,” said Nandita Venkatesan, one of the two women filing the patent challenge. “I was devastated by this loss, which took a heavy financial, emotional, and mental toll on me. How many more people will have to die or go deaf waiting to access safer and more effective drugs that can save their lives without such devastating side effects?”

MSF supports the patent challenge and is calling on J&J to stop attempts to extend its monopoly on a lifesaving drug with the potential to improve cure rates for patients battling DR-TB in India and around the world.

We are also urging J&J to cut the price of bedaquiline to $1 a day so that many more lives can be saved. Click here to learn more and spread the word.