Krishna Prabhu, a Harvard junior, talks Thursday after a Harvard Yard protest against Harvard drug-patent policies — the source of his “Say Yes to Drugs” T-shirt. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Krishna Prabhu, a Harvard junior, talks Thursday after a Harvard Yard protest against university drug-patent policies — the reason for his “Say Yes to Drugs” T-shirt. (Photo: Marc Levy)

At a party school, a rally with students wearing “Say Yes to Drugs” T-shirts would be funny; at Harvard, Thursday’s 150-person protest and their shirts were in deadly earnest — raising a cry against severe patent restrictions in developing nations that keep inexpensive drugs from those who need it most.

Students working with the national Universities Allied for Essential Medicines organization have been after Harvard and other major institutions for years to ease restrictions and allow cheap pharmaceuticals to help patients with AIDS, diabetes and host of other illnesses in poorer nations. As Harvard junior Charles Liu described it, it seemed there was progress, despite universities’ tendency to minimize student involvement in the negotiations.

“There were positive signals from the administration last spring, they were meeting more often and there was a process under way,” Liu said after the Harvard Yard protest. Some dozen university representatives gathered over the summer and met again this fall, all on the essential-medicines agenda.

But a joint university statement released Nov. 9 that seemed like a step forward ultimately — after a look at Harvard’s implementation plans — left students disappointed.

Despite saying university patents “should not become a barrier to essential health-related technologies needed by patients in developing countries,” Harvard privately told students it had no plans to stop the practice of asserting patents in India, China and other developing countries that could make generic drugs for export, according to Harvard’s chapter of Essential Medicines.

“We asked, ‘Will practices actually change?’” Liu recalled, with Harvard representatives replying, “’No, these principals reflect our current practices.’ Harvard was saying, ‘We’re already pretty good and we’ll be raising others to our level.”

The statement — the Statement of Principles and Strategies for the Equitable Dissemination of Medical Technologies — was signed by Harvard, Yale, Brown, Boston University, the University of Pennsylvania, Oregon Health & Science University and the Association of University Technology Managers, and speaks of “vigorous efforts” toward essential-medicines goals and, at least on paper, significant commitments: “In cases where universities can fully preclude intellectual property barriers to generic provision by not patenting in developing countries, or by filing and abandoning patents, we will pursue these strategies.”

But Harvard’s comments to students contradict those goals, said Liu and Sarah Sorscher, a law student involved with Harvard’s chapter of Essential Medicines, and their corrective practices seem like half-measures.

For instance, the student activists said, special licenses for humanitarian groups or the governments of developing nations aren’t effective if those groups and governments are poor to begin with. Another Harvard compromise “cuts off generic drugs at the source,” Sorscher said in a press release. “It doesn’t matter if Harvard promises not to patent in the rest of the developing world. Without factories to make the [generic] drug, patients won’t have access.”

What’s at stake is only 5 percent of the global pharmaceuticals market, Sorscher said after the protest. But that’s 10 million preventable deaths per year.

“We’re not opposed to patents in general,” Liu said. “The problem is that innovation without access isn’t helpful either.”

Essential-medicines proponents point to Yale’s production of stavudine, an AIDS retroviral that was put into production by Bristol-Myers-Squibb and sold for high prices as Zerit, even in South Africa, a poor nation considered to have the highest number of AIDS and HIV patients in the world. In 2001, when the  international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders and Yale students asked the company and university to stop enforcing their patents and licensing rights in South Africa and allow generic copies to hit the market, the response was “our hands were tied,” Liu and Sorscher said. But weeks of protests and bad publicity helped Yale and Bristol-Myers-Squibb find a way. An Indian company said it would sell a generic costing 34 times less than Zerit.

Students involved in essential-medicines efforts at Harvard have gotten “a lot of push-back” over the years, Sorscher said, but haven’t ceded their goals — mainly for the formation of an interdisciplinary committee to provide real-time oversight, without significantly slowing the process, on Harvard pharmaceutical patents and licensing.

Kevin Galvin, director of news and media relations for Harvard University Public Affairs & Communications, could not make a Harvard official available for comment after hours, but pointed to a statement on the Nov. 9 agreement by Harvard Provost Steven E. Hyman.

Hyman said he is confident “that over time these principles and strategies, which now are viewed as ahead-of-the-curve, will come to be the norm and will be broadly implemented within the field of academic technology transfer. Unquestionably,” he said, “these strategies are entirely in keeping with our shared mission of bringing all of our discoveries to those who will most benefit from them.”