Drug patents are part of the cure
IPN Opinion article
Business Day (South Africa)
ACCESS to medicines is a serious problem in developing countries. Yet a global campaign that places all the blame on intellectual property rights reflects growing confusion and ignorance about this complex issue.
World Intellectual Property Organisation is meeting this week for a final discussion of a so-called “development agenda”, which has been largely predicated on the dubious proposition that intellectual property is to blame for many of the ills in the world. Implementing such an agenda would likely be counterproductive. Far from improving access to medicine, “reforming” the rules would likely undermine the very foundations of economic growth, while doing nothing to promote long-term access to drugs.
Among the better models for innovation suggested by opponents of the current system are open-access publishing, open-source software development and increased government funding for research and development.
But while patents may not be sufficient to stimulate some forms of basic research, weakening intellectual property rights will reduce the level of investment in applied research and development, not increase it. The idea that intellectual property rights restrict access to technologies such as pharmaceuticals is predicated on a misunderstanding of the role it plays in promoting development and prosperity overall. If people in the poorest nations do not have access to medicines, it has nothing to do with the presumed dark side of intellectual property trying to keep them poor. It is because they have failed to climb aboard the train of economic development.
The key to economic development is the presence of the institutions of a free society: property rights, the rule of law, free markets and limited government. Explosive rates of innovation have taken place in countries, such as South Korea, Mexico, Jordan and Singapore, which have understood that growth and prosperity can only occur once the institutional framework is in place.
Strong intellectual property rights, administered and enforced in an impartial manner, have been an important part of this framework. As a result, these countries have experienced the growth of “knowledge-based” industries — to the benefit of all.
If intellectual property rights are responsible for restricted access to medicines in poor countries, then drugs should be plentiful in countries where the patents are expired or were never present. On the contrary, many of the most critical drugs that Africa still lacks have been off-patent for 30 or 40 years. These include most antidiarrhoea drugs, antibiotics, derivatives of penicillin and cephalosporin, many antihypertensive drugs and almost all antipyretic drugs.
The human genome project hardly serves as a basis for completely altering the current model of intellectual property rights. While it has provided information with potential use, the benefits of its initial research must not be overstated. Removing property rights and making companies conduct open-source research and development could to lead to disaster. Without the chance of recovering investments, why would research-based pharmaceutical companies invest large sums in drug development?
Open-source models might work in some businesses that are not so capital-intensive, but it is a pipe-dream to rely on the philanthropy of chemists, physicians, researchers and financiers to contribute voluntarily to such schemes.
Without massive capital there will be no new research. Without new research, such evolving diseases as AIDS, tuberculosis, influenza and malaria will become unstoppable.
Instead of attacking intellectual property, friends of the poor should direct their efforts to promoting property rights (including intellectual property), the rule of law and the freedom to trade unfettered by arbitrary government interference in less-developed countries. These institutions do not just improve people’s ability to buy drugs — they also affect nutrition, education, distribution, infrastructure, the wages of health staff and opportunities to set up businesses such as wholesalers and pharmacies.
Without the institutions of the free society, there can be no growth and no sustained improvement in the health of people who currently die from curable diseases. Intellectual property is not part of the problem, it is part of the solution.
Kilama, PhD, is the Uganda-born president of the Global Bioscience Development Institute, a nonprofit training institute in Wilmington, Delaware, US.