Trade agreements are best medicine for continued drug improvement

Jim Martin Chairman, 60 Plus Association
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When asked by a New York Times reporter how it felt to have failed 700 times in his attempt to perfect the light bulb, Thomas Edison famously quipped, “I have not failed. I’ve succeeded in finding 700 ways that do not work.” Edison may have done his best work over a hundred years ago, but his sentiments concerning the labor required to give birth to innovation are completely in sync today with one of our nation’s most crucial industries: the pharmaceutical industry.

While many of us take for granted the astounding abundance of medicines that keep us well and living longer, few know just how much work, trial and error, re-testing, adjusting, reformulating, and on and on it takes to get a new drug to market. And just like with Thomas Edison, each final product that makes it to market has many near misses along the way, hundreds if not thousands of would-be medicines that never see the light of day.

On average more than a decade of research and development is required to realize just one life-saving treatment. Scientists and doctors endlessly test and toil so we can get the best and safest medicines that alleviate everything from the common cold to pancreatic cancer. And the financial resources that are put into developing these drugs is also eye-opening, totaling over $1 billion on average for each drug that receives Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval before reaching the public.

The benefits of continued health, therefore, can only be realized by the substantial investment of private capital which powers medical innovation, and this in turn relies on a strong legal regime which protects the intellectual property (IP) funded by these investments. Fortunately, in the U.S., we have a strong system that promotes innovation by rigorously defending intellectual property. But what about when these products make their way into other countries and other economies?

When we deepen our commercial ties with other nations, it is critical that we don’t fritter away the fruit of our labor and capital investment because of lax protection and enforcement of IP overseas. Free trade agreements go a long way to preventing IP theft, because they provide us and our trading partners the opportunity to lay the groundwork for a secure environment that promotes investments in improving our healthcare. In the absence of clearly established free trade agreements, commerce can look like the Wild West, with few laws and little to no protection from thieves who would steal the property we worked so hard to develop.

Today, such provisions are being considered in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP). The TPP brings together the likes of the U.S., Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam to pave a path forward in enhanced economic cooperation.

While the negotiating parties represent a diverse cross-section of global economies, it is in our collective interest to support strong IP rights to ensure long-term gains for people when developing better, safer medicines. As medical research is getting far more complex, and therefore far more costly and time-consuming, it is more important than ever to cultivate an environment that doesn’t facilitate unlawful copycats who undercut legitimate innovators.

Some critics abroad say that IP is a barrier to the distribution of vaccines and medicine, but these claims couldn’t be further from reality. In fact, it’s the complete opposite: Intellectual property delivers us access to the best treatments our most brilliant minds can muster.

As chairman of the 60 Plus Association, which represents over 7.2 million senior consumers, I strongly support the current U.S. approach of trying to get medicines into the hands of as many people as possible across the globe, while also protecting the incentives that spur research and scientific breakthroughs. We urge the U.S. government to continue to play a leadership role in securing a commercially meaningful TPP agreement consistent with U.S. law. When it comes to scientific innovation in health care that fights disease and furthers medical progress, the only real failure would be letting the light go out on the legal protections that illuminate the path of innovation and better health for all.

Jim Martin is chairman and founder of the 60 Plus Association.