What if…drug patents were scrapped?



In 1955, virologist Jonas Salk was asked about the intellectual property rights of his polio vaccine. To which he responded: ‘There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?’ Salk’s choice to make the vaccine patent free ultimately beat back the US polio epidemic by 1962.

The pharmaceuticals industry has ballooned in size since then, reaching an estimated value of $1.2 trillion in 2018, made possible by a patents system that grants firms at least 20 years’ exclusive rights to manufacture, sell and market new drugs.

Although an estimated two-thirds of global research and development is paid out of the public purse, manufacturers can charge governments eyewatering sums for drugs.

According to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), it costs just $0.25 to $0.50 to make the daily dose of the tuberculosis drug bedaquiline. But manufacturer Johnson & Johnson charges over eight times that cost in developing countries. Patients require up to 14,600 pills over two years, pricing thousands out of treatment.

The tension between public health and private profit has never been more visible, especially as the world searches for a vaccine against coronavirus.

Some experts point to existing provisions to compel industry to release vital drugs during times of crisis. World Trade Organization rules specify that governments can override patents to allow other manufacturers to produce generic versions of life-saving medicines – this is called compulsory licensing.

But Big Pharma fights back with lawsuits. Corporate Europe Observatory predicts a wave of ‘pandemic legal disputes’ if governments try using this provision to combat coronavirus. As during the AIDS crisis, when 39 transnational pharmaceutical companies sued Nelson Mandela for defying HIV drug licences, companies are unlikely to want to make an exception for Covid-19.

The pharmaceutical patents system is based on the belief that without patents, medical innovation will cease. But researchers have shown how firms stifle innovation, engaging in ‘killer acquisitions’ to buy up smaller innovative companies, solely to stop their drug development projects and remove future competition.

It’s a broken system, not delivering the drugs we need at prices we need. At the time of writing, the world death toll from Covid-19 is 350,000. Economist Joseph Stiglitz asks: what if a global network of laboratories, without Intellectual Property (IP) lawyers breathing down their necks, ‘monitored for emerging strains of a contagious virus, periodically updated an established formula for vaccinating against it, and then made that information available to companies and countries around the world?’

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