By D. Wayne Taylor
East Bay Times guest commentary
In June 2016, the United Nations is expected to issue recommendations for expanding access to medicines in developing countries. The panel’s proposals will almost certainly fall short.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon convened his High-Level Panel on Access to Medicines in November 2015 to develop “solutions for remedying the policy incoherence between the justifiable rights of inventors, international human rights law, trade rules and public health in the context of health technologies.”
The misguided assumption that intellectual property rights are at odds with global health does nothing to expand access to important medicines. In fact, without such protections, cutting-edge medications would be even harder to procure. By concentrating solely on patents and other intellectual property, the panel wasted an opportunity to address the root causes of the developing world’s persistent medicine shortages.
To understand the connection between intellectual property and medical progress, consider the experience of my own country, Canada. Beginning in 2005, lawmakers significantly weakened protections for biopharmaceutical researchers. Courts have since invalidated more than 25 drug patents.
Unable to safeguard their inventions, Canada’s biotechnology firms have steadily reduced their investments in research and development. Many companies have consolidated in places with more favorable laws, including the United States. In other words, Canada’s choice to weaken intellectual property protections resulted in a rapid slowdown in drug innovation.
The U.N. has not learned from Canada’s example.
Case in point: the U.S. Department of State has expressed concerns that the panel’s mandate is “too narrow to address the many and often inter-related barriers to access to safe, effective, and affordable medicines.”
It explained that the World Health Organization (WHO) has clearly identified factors that genuinely affect access to medicines — and that the panel is studying none of them.
The U.N.’s obsession with intellectual property is even less defensible when you consider that 95 percent of the drugs on the WHO’s essential medicines list are not protected by patent. Yet, one in three people in the world’s poorest countries lack reliable access to them.
Pneumonia, for instance, is easily treated with an inexpensive antibiotic. But, that condition kills 1.3 million people around the world every year. More children under the age of five die from pneumonia than of AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined. Patent tampering will not change this.
The real impediments to drug access involve on-the-ground factors like poor transportation infrastructure, defective institutions, and inadequate delivery systems.
Simply obtaining a prescription is a major challenge in many developing countries due to a severe shortage of medical professionals. In some nations, as many as three in four physicians relocate to developed countries after earning a medical degree.
The U.N. has chosen to disregard these facts to demonize rules that protect and incent biopharmaceutical innovation. If the panel were serious about expanding drug access, it would embrace intellectual property as essential.
Effective patent systems encourage companies to invest in research. Over the last 15 years, biopharmaceutical firms have developed more than 550 medicines to fight heart disease, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS among many other deadly illnesses. As of last year, more than 800 treatments for cancer were in development.
Intellectual property protections also help promote access to the most up-to-date treatments. According to a study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, people in economies with “fair to strong” IP protections are 30 percent more likely to have access to recent technological innovations.
The current patent system even enables drug firms to reduce prices for patients in the developing world. The Novartis Access program, for example, offers public healthcare providers in low- and middle-income countries a bundle of patented and off-patent medications for just $1 per treatment per month. Bayer has taken a similar tiered-pricing approach for contraceptives in developing countries.
The U.N. has a vital role to play in expanding access to basic medicines. Before it can make progress, it will need to abandon its misguided campaign against intellectual property and acknowledge the real challenges to drug access.
D. Wayne Taylor, Ph.D., is the executive director of The Cameron Institute, an alternative, nonprofit, public policy think tank specializing in the independent study of health, social and economic issues both in Canada and the world.