If policy planners were to follow the apparent path of the United Nation’s “High-Level Panel on Access to Medicines,” they could bring global drug innovation to a halt– reducing the research and development of new medicine for all the world’s citizens.
The Panel is focused on the right problem. According to a press release, the Panel “Committed itself to finding solutions that will increase access to medicines, while continuing to promote investment in new treatments to save the lives of millions.” Furthermore, “Panelists noted that despite progress made in many areas, millions of people are still left behind. Many are dying because they cannot access life-saving medicines.” In particular, 1.2 million people died from AIDs in 2014, and over 400 million people have hepatitis B and C.
But rather than look comprehensively at this complex global challenge, the Panel is pursuing a narrow and misguided focus on patents as a barrier to access to medicines. The Panel’s website explains that its objective is solely “to review and assess proposals and recommend 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.” This sentence alone is enough to raise serious red flags about the objectivity of the panel’s work and wrongly presupposes that there is some kind of “policy incoherence” between incentivizing economic development and private research and development of lifesaving medicines and the access to them.
Developing countries commonly face access barriers that have little to do with the supposed “problem” of patents. Many countries lack the infrastructure needed to physically store medications and deliver health care to their citizens, especially those in rural areas. Furthermore, they face a severe shortage of medical staff. For instance, per capita, poor countries often have just one-fifteenth as many doctors as rich countries.(1) This is because government funding is often lacking, and many nations impose long registration processes on new medicine. South Africa embodies this trend as it often takes five years to start selling a new pharmaceutical.(2)
As a result, many developing countries lack proper delivery systems. In a 2015 survey conducted by Medecins Sans Frontières, one in three health facilities in South Africa reported shortages of tuberculosis and HIV drugs. Though the drugs were being imported in sufficient quantities, they consistently failed to reach patients because of “local logistical and management problems.” 3
Developing a new medicine can take more than a decade. This risk-taking and perseverance needs to be valued when it produces a treatment that helps patients. Inventors need a way to recoup this investment. Patents, which give inventors the exclusive right to manage the production and sale of their product for a limited time, are part of the solution. Once a drug’s patent expires, other companies can make competing generic versions. Patents do not stop generic companies from creating their own research-based original product.
Strong patent laws yield the new medications that save millions of lives and the rights for companies to market their products, which is the only thing that makes such an endeavor worthwhile.4 Then, competition drives down prices by creating multiple options. There are now multiple HepC cures on the market, driving down the number of patients with the disease and creating competition among industry and options for patients and payers. A few years ago there was no cure. For someone to have “access to medication,” the medication needs to exist. The patent system encourages this.
Policymakers, businesses, and patients, should expect more from governmental bodies like the UN. They should expect the UN to come up with real solutions to solve systemic problems for their respective populations. If the UN and other policymakers attack global innovation efforts and incentives, there will be fewer new devices, products, and medicines for people living in their respective countries. That will be the real “policy incoherence.”