SEATTLE— Solving global health crises may become easier and quicker. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon recently announced the formation of the United Nations High Level Panel on Access to Medicines—a new initiative that aims to examine the lack of universal access to 375 of the most “essential” drugs, including treatments for HIV/AIDS.
One aspect of the drug industry that will be scrutinized by the panel is the widespread definition of drug formulas as intellectual property. The cost of and access to essential drugs could aid in solving global health crises. The panel aims to balance trade, human rights, and public health, in cooperation with the Sustainable Development Goals.
The Variances of Intellectual Property Laws
Intellectual property laws vary from country to country, and the United States has some of the strictest intellectual property laws on the planet. That fact, says Charles Sauer, President of the Market Institute, is precisely what makes the U.S. the most prolific developer of new drugs. Although the U.N. High Level Panel on Access to Medicines may be well-meaning, in Mr. Sauer’s view, a cut in drug patents could spell the end of consistent medical innovation.
To start, he says, the “intellectual property keeps poor individuals from accessing medicines” argument fails to take into account the enormous time and monetary costs of developing new drugs. In the United States, drug development takes an average of 10 years and 2.6 billion dollars, and even then only one-eighth of drugs that make it to the clinical trial phase ever make it to the general market.
Few investors would approach such a daunting commitment without some assurance that their investment would pay off; in other words, investors are encouraged by a preservation of intellectual property rights, because their investments are controlled by them, and therefore will be profitable.
U.S. Paves the Way in Drug Research
Additionally, despite the United States’ strict intellectual property laws, 70 percent of the drugs in research and development worldwide began in U.S. laboratories, and more than half of all new medications created in the last decade came from laboratories in the United States.
This is not to say that there is no problem with universal access to medications. Especially in the case of HIV/AIDS medications, costs are exorbitant, and pitifully few of the world’s poor have access to the drugs they need to combat the disease. Although 350 of the 375 drugs deemed “essential” by the United Nations are in the public domain, the problem of universal access continues to hamper an increased standard of global health.
Instead of attacking intellectual property, Mr. Sauer commented, the United Nations should look at basic health care access worldwide. Perhaps finding other ways of improving global health or solving global health crises, maybe by improving access to healthcare professionals, before examining drugs themselves. Intellectual property in the drug industry drives and incentivizes growth.
As the U.S. State Department said, “examining only pieces of the larger puzzle…[is sure to be]imbalanced…even counterproductive.” So could intellectual property be the key to solving global health crises? Possibly. But it is clear that limiting intellectual property rights could slow the research and development of the lifesaving drugs of the future.
– Sage Smiley
Photo: U.N. Multimedia