Ending patents not the cure
IPN Opinion article
Business Day (South Africa)
Ending patents not the cure
But here we have a paradox; we seem to be in favour of groups like Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and our government as they ignore the law and disregard private property rights, but cannot afford gaybasher Bob the same courtesy.
TAC's aims are indeed noble there are few who would think that wanting to increase access to drugs and health care for the worlds' poorest is a bad thing.
The problem with the ending of patent protection, though, is that in the long term we all lose, especially those in developing countries. And that will be the outcome if the pharmaceutical companies fail in their attempt starting on March 5 in Pretoria High Court to overturn legislation that allows patent-breaking anti-AIDS drugs to be imported from India.
Developing drugs is a costly affair. Once a specific drug molecule has been discovered, a patent is granted for 20 years but toxicity testing, product development and clinical trials can take up to 14years, after which the drug has to be registered and permission granted for it to be marketed. This may leave only six years for the pharmaceutical company to recoup money.
Not all drugs sell successfully and so the products that do sell well have to carry the duds. It is a risky industry and investors require returns that reflect this.
According to TAC, the removal of patent protection will increase access to drugs, as well as competition, stimulating research and development.
While Zackie Achmat of TAC admits some form of legal protection is needed so that the drug companies can recover some of their costs although he provides no clue as to how this would work the campaign seeks to remove the monopoly power that patents give.
There are certainly flaws with the patent system. If a patent is too broadly defined, or lasts for too long, it will discourage other researchers. But to think that insecure property rights and increased risk will spur research and development is funky economics at best.
As Mirryena Deeb of the Pharmaceutical Association of SA points out, one need only look at India, where patents are not protected, to see that access to quality health care is in no way increased, even though the price of many drugs is low.
In addition, producers of generics in such countries do not conduct research into new innovative drugs they only piggyback on the innovation of GlaxoSmithKline, Merck and the like. If removal of patent protection were to stimulate competition and innovation, as TAC claims, one would expect India and Thailand to be producing the most advanced drugs.
Perhaps the pharmaceutical companies could do more, but let us not forget that, over a year ago, Pfizer offered free Diflucan, worth more than $50m, to government, an offer that has only been taken up now.
Part of the problem was that it took the Medicines Control Council over seven months to approve the tablet form of Diflucan ( already approved in a different format).
However, when TAC brought in the generic Biozole from Thailand, it took the council four weeks to provide approval (based only on a simple assay test and not the bioequivalence studies needed to test efficacy).
Perhaps TAC would do better campaigning for a more effective council, rather than jeopardising the future of research into developing-country diseases by making it more unattractive for pharmaceutical companies to maintain a presence here.
HIV/AIDS has a high-enough profile for research and development to continue, despite the misguided policy of TAC.
Malaria and numerous other developing country diseases do not, and the direct effect of the removal of patent protection will be increased death and suffering from these illnesses.
We need greater patent protection and the prospect of greater profits, not less.