SEATTLE — One of the facets of perpetual poverty is the inability for individuals to obtain essential medicines and healthcare needed for their survival. Many have disputed the role of patent laws on this matter, wondering if patents are a problem for poverty. It can be argued that intellectual property rights limit access to medicine and contribute to the cycle of poverty.
Intellectual property rights are most effectively considered through the lens of the multilateral trade agreement Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). This agreement, established in 1995, is the constitution of all intellectual property right agreements. It is concerned with copyright, trademarks, patents and other forms of intellectual property.
A patent is effective for no fewer than 20 years. During those 20 years, only the patent holder may manufacture and distribute the product. For years, pharmaceutical companies have profited from patenting medicine at high costs. In the case of low-income individuals in developing countries, stringent patent laws and costly medicine can be a serious problem.
According to the Access Campaign, a campaign spearheaded by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the problem of costly pharmaceuticals may be solved by generics. Generics are simplified versions of brand name drugs and are usually cheaper than their more sophisticated counterparts.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains that generics must contain the same active ingredient as the name brand model and must be equally as potent in the bloodstream. On average, the cost of a generic is 80 to 85 percent less than name-brand products. With the proliferation of generic drugs, the negative effects of patents on poverty diminish in scope. According to the Access Campaign, the price of some generic drugs is 99 percent cheaper than their name brand counterparts.
A study by Health Affairs, a journal on health policy, demonstrates that patents may not interfere with access to medicine as much as people think. The World Health Organization (WHO) maintains a Model List of Essential Medicines (EML), or medicines deemed necessary for survival. The study showed that only 17 of 319 items on the EML were “effectively patented in developing countries.”
While this study may appear promising, it diminishes the important fact that many of the 17 patented medicines are those which target HIV/AIDS. This is cause for concern because more than one million people die annually from HIV/AIDS and more than 36 million people worldwide live with the disease.
About one-third of people in developing countries do not have access to essential medicines. Some say this is largely due to patents, while others say it is a consequence of poverty.
Either way, continuing the conversation about expanding the accessibility of medicines in developing countries is important. The first step in poverty alleviation is health security. Suffering from a disease makes the climb out of poverty twice as long and twice as steep.
– Rebeca Ilisoi