Protecting patents safeguards patients
IPN Opinion article
Removing intellectual property rights and making pharmaceutical firms conduct open-source research and development could lead to disaster
By JOHN KILAMA, PHD
Access to medicines is a serious problem in less-developed countries. Yet a global campaign that places all the blame on intellectual property (IP) reflects growing confusion and ignorance about this complex issue.
The World Intellectual Property Organisation is meeting this week for a final discussion of a so-called ''development agenda'', which has been largely predicated on the dubious proposition that intellectual property (IP) is to blame for many of the ills in the world.
Implementing such an agenda would likely be counter-productive. Far from improving access to medicine, ''reforming'' IP rules would likely undermine the very foundations of economic growth, while doing nothing to promote long-term access to drugs.
Among superior models for innovation suggested by opponents of the current system are open-access publishing, open-source software development and increased government funding for research and development. While patents may not be sufficient to stimulate some forms of basic research, weakening IP rights will reduce the level of investment in applied research and development, not increase it.
Attempting to replace IP protection with government funding of applied R&D is likely to be about as successful as the Soviet Union's record of innovation; i.e. poor.
The idea that IP restricts access to technologies such as pharmaceuticals is predicated on a misunderstanding of the role IP plays in promoting development and prosperity overall, not just in innovative industries such as pharmaceuticals.
If people in the poorest nations of Africa or Asia do not have access to medicines, it has nothing to do with the presumed dark side of IP trying to keep them poor. It is because those countries have failed to climb aboard the train of economic development.
The key to economic development is the presence of the institutions of the free society: property rights, the rule of law, free markets and limited government.
Consider South Korea, which 50 years ago was poorer _ in terms of per capita GDP _ than most African countries.
Yet, by improving the institutional framework within which entrepreneurs act, the government has enabled sustained economic, cultural and social development.
In the past two decades, improved IP rules have been part and parcel of that process _ providing incentives to innovation and creativity that have fed through into rapid economic growth.
A measure (albeit imperfect) of the importance of IP in this process is the number of patent applications, which nearly trebled during the 1990s as the economy took off.
Similar explosive rates of innovation have taken place in other countries, including Mexico, Jordan and Singapore, which have understood that growth and prosperity can only occur once the institutional framework is in place.
Strong IP rights, administered and enforced in an impartial manner, have been an important part of this framework. As a result, these countries have experienced the growth of ''knowledge-based'' industries _ to the benefit of their citizens and the world at large.
If IP rights were responsible for restricted access to medicines in poor countries, then drugs should be plentiful in countries where the patents are expired or were never present.
On the contrary, many of the most critical drugs that Africa still lacks have been off-patent for 30 or 40 years.
This includes most anti-diarrhoea drugs, antibiotics, derivatives of penicillin and cephalosporin, many anti-hypertensive drugs and practically all anti-pyretic drugs.
If IP is the problem, why are so many African children still dying from diarrhoea?
The human genome project hardly serves a basis for completely altering the current model of IP rights.
While it has provided information with potential use, the benefits of its initial research must not be overstated. The era of personalised medicine, heralded by many during the euphoria surrounding the decoding of the human genome, remains far off.
Removing property rights and making companies conduct open-source R&D has the potential to lead to disaster.
Without the chance of recovering investments, why would research-based pharmaceutical companies invest large sums of capital into drug development?
Open-source models might work in some businesses that are not so capital-intensive but it is a pipe dream to rely upon the philanthropy of chemists, physicians, researchers and financiers to contribute voluntarily to such schemes.
Without massive capital there will be no new research. Without new research, such evolving diseases as Aids, tuberculosis, the flu and malaria will become unstoppable.
Instead of attacking IP, friends of the poor should direct their efforts to promoting property rights (including IP), the rule of law and the freedom to trade unfettered by arbitrary government interference in less-developed countries.
These institutions do not just improve people's ability to buy drugs _ there is a lot more to health care than that. They also affect nutrition, education, distribution, infrastructure, the wages of health staff and the ability to set up businesses such as wholesalers and pharmacies. Without the institutions of the free society, there can be no growth and there can be no sustained improvement in the health of people who currently die from the most basic diseases. Intellectual property is not part of the problem, it is part of the solution.
John Kilama, PhD, is the Uganda-born president of the Global Bioscience Development Institute, a non-profit training institute based in Wilmington, Delaware, USA.
This article was also published in the Independent (Bangladesh)