UN Panel Hurts Patients By Blaming Patents

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Brady Wilson Associate, Property Rights Alliance
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The UN is taking steps to address the global health crisis with the High-Level Panel on Access to Medicines. The problem is that these steps are in the wrong direction and will actually end up hurting the people who they intend to benefit.

The global health crisis is undeniable, around 1 in 3 people lack dependable access to what are deemed “essential” medicines. This sad reality is caused by a variety of things:

Infrastructure — According to the UN, 70 percent of the impoverished in developing countries live in a state of rural poverty. Therefore, the people who need medicines the most often do not have access to the basic infrastructure that is required to deliver medicine in a timely and efficient manner. Many rural communities do not have the roads for delivery or the refrigeration necessary to keep these medicines.

Professionals – In 2013, the World Health Organization estimated that there was a global shortage of trained healthcare professionals amounting to 7.2 million individuals. That number is likely even higher if trends have continued the last three years. This means that there are not proper staff to administer and diagnose the essential medicines.

Government Priorities – The people who need medicines the most often find no help from their governments. These states often care little for their people and only focus on the needs of those in charge as evidenced by the fact that some states actually collect more money in tariffs and taxes than they spend on medicine.

With so many major problems in delivering essential medication, the UN panel should be able to make policy changes that would bring major improvements to the lives of people around the world. However, the panel has disregarded all of these issues and is instead examining the role of patents and intellectual property in the medical field. Their argument is that patents may slightly raise the prices on medicines.

Instead of addressing the real issues, the UN has made up its own cause to fight. The majority of medicines that are designated as essential are not even under patents, they have generic versions and thus are at the lowest price possible. In fact 350 of the 375 medications deemed essential are not subject to patents.

Furthermore, the panel is overlooking the need for innovation in the medical industry. 91 percent of available medicines were produced in the private sector. Private companies need protection on their inventions because it is extremely costly to research and develop new drugs. On average it takes over 12 years and $2.6 billion dollars to develop a new drug. Thus, companies need security and reassurance before they would be willing to take such a gamble.

Due to the high costs of bringing a drug to market, companies only work in places that will give them the protection that they need. For that reason 70 percent of the drugs in research and development around the world begin in United States’ labs.

If the protections of patents and intellectual property are no longer given, companies will lose all incentives to develop new drugs and the healthcare field will no longer be able to respond to medical threats.

Patent protection is not just good for the creation of new drugs either, it actually saves the world billions of dollars. In Canada alone, the government saves $900 million a year in hospital expenditures since patients do not spend as many days in the hospital.

With all the benefits of a strong patent system in the pharmaceutical arena, it seems that the UN should be advocating for intellectual property rather than hurting it. Unfortunately, the members of the panel are not thinking rationally. In fact, one member of the panel is a generic drug king pin who would benefit financially from patents being lifted on all drugs.

The UN Panel had the opportunity to address some of the real shortcomings of the global medical system. For some reason, the panel was told to ignore the real issues of bringing essential medicines to those in need and only consider patents as the cause. This panel had a chance to better the global community but due to its inaccurate focus on patents, it will not meet its potential.

Unfortunately, it appears that this panel is more than just a missed opportunity, if it continues with its anticipated policy suggestions, medicine will face a global setback. Only one out of 5,000 drugs that reaches preclinical testing will make it to market. If patents are weakened like the Panel advocates for, companies will lose their incentive to invest in such risky treatments.

In Africa alone, malaria treatment has saved a million lives in five years. If the Panel weakens the incentive for companies to research risky new drugs, breakthroughs like this will be impossible.

While patents boost innovation for drug saving medicines, they also inhibit counterfeiting. The World Health Organization notes that an absence of legal policy is a facilitator of drug counterfeiting. Modest estimates believe that 100,000 people die each year because of counterfeit medications, while others believe 700,000 people die just from fake Malaria drugs.  Strengthening patents in developing countries would guarantee that real, effective drugs reach those in need, but the UN is taking the opposite approach. The UN is right to call for greater access to essential medicines, but its proposal will further inhibit availability of life saving drugs and will allow for the rampant devastation that results from fake medications.