Kenyans protest at being left off AIDS patent

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The terms of a collaboration on a potential HIV vaccine, between a British research team and the University of Nairobi, are to be revised after the Kenyan scientists complained that their names had been excluded from a patent application on the vaccine.

The original patent on the subtype A DNA candidate vaccine was filed last year by the UK Medical Research Council in the names of Andrew McMichael and Tomas Hanke, of Oxford University's Institute of Molecular Medicine.

Prostitutes in Nairobi wait for a medical check-up. A potential HIV vaccine has been developed from Kenyan prostitutes immune to the virus. Credit: AP

The vaccine is based on a mechanism by which certain HIV-resistant prostitutes in Nairobi appear to be immune to the disease. McMichael and Hanke have been primarily responsible for identifying the molecular basis of this mechanism and building it into the vaccine.

Under an agreement reached with the University of Nairobi two weeks ago, a new memorandum will be drawn up recognizing the contribution of scientists in the university's Department of Microbiology. These researchers have been recording the T-cell responses among prostitutes in the Majengo slums of Nairobi for more than a decade.

The dispute arose from the fact that, although the two teams work closely together — trials of the vaccine are already under way in Oxford, and are due to start in Kenya shortly — the Oxford researchers had not told their African colleagues that they were applying for the patent.

“As soon as we realized our names were not included, we entered into correspondence with our partners to ensure that we were reflected as being among the researchers,” says Job Bwayo, head of microbiology and team leader of the AIDS vaccine initiative programme at the University of Nairobi.

According to McMichael, his research team took out the patent primarily to prevent other organizations from doing so. He says that his and Hanke's names are the only ones on the application because its novel technical content — primarily the sequence of the construct — was based entirely on work carried out in Oxford.

“There has been no intention of shutting out the Kenyans from the fruits of the research,” says McMichael, although he admits that “we should have raised the patent issue much earlier”.

He adds that one aim of seeking a patent was to ensure that, if the clinical trials prove successful, the vaccine would not be marketed at a profit, but at a price that most Africans would be able to afford.

It has now been agreed that the original memorandum of understanding will be modified to recognize the contribution of Bwayo and his colleagues Omu Anzala and Jeckoniah Ndinya-Achola, who have been involved in the broader research behind the potential vaccine.

Talks chaired by the vice-chancellor of the University of Nairobi, Francis Gichaga, have also led to an agreement to set up a task force consisting of patent and intellectual-property experts from the two universities and members of the New York-based International Aids Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), the main sponsor of the clinical trials.

One issue still to be addressed is how to benefit the 60 prostitutes whose immune systems provided the knowledge to develop the vaccine. “We have not forgotten them,” says Anzala, the project's programme manager in Nairobi.

A statement issued by the University of Nairobi, the UK Medical Research Council and IAVI, while acknowledging “shortfalls” in the current memorandum, also stresses that “this patent was filed in good faith to protect the candidate DNA vaccine from unauthorized third-party exploitation”.

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