Saturday, October 15, 2005

Access to medicines debate back to the table?

The nightly news are filled with stories about the bird flu and the prospect of a pandemic that will kill millions of people. But it has also brought one issue back to the table, the access to medicines debate. There are reports that there is only one antiviral drug that deals with the current strain of the disease, a drug by Swiss company Roche called Tamiflu. There is growing concern that Roche is the only company with a patent to produce this drug, and it is finally dawning on some people that this may not be such a good idea after all.

What to do? Some governments have warned that they will simply start producing the drug themselves, patent be damned. Whatever happens, it is clear that the access to medicines debate may be coming back.


Anonymous said...

I am not a fan of patents in other industries. But the pharmaceutical industry is the one place where they should work, in theory.

First, the industry is not complex, in that the end product is usually covered by one patent, and so the failures of the hardware industries are not reproduced. Secondly, researching and testing a drug does cost a lot of money, especially if this is in proportion to the percentage of people affected. In the case of rare diseases, patents provide an incentive to produce at a level of demand that would be ignored by the free market. Finally, I suspect that patents also cause the pharmaceutical industry to deploy its resources more effectively, as the winner of the game necessarily causes a large loss to the loser(s).

I don't like patents. I don't like the negative impact of monopolies, particularly the costs imposed on developing countries. But I haven't heard anybody propose a valid alternative. How do you allow full patents for some drugs and not for others without undermining the propriety of the whole system? How do you reward research and not production as the nobel laureate advocated?

But I also accept that we can't rely on major discoveries to be made by public institutions, and so to be more liberally available. It seems the only check that exists is the unlegalistic one where third world countries produce their own generic drugs, or threaten to, to secure cheaper prices.

Andres Guadamuz said...

I agree that patents in pharmaceuticals have proved to induce innovation, and there is also good cuse to say that many drugs would not see the light of day without patents.

The problem is that in certain circumstances public health will have to prevail. In the case of Tamiflu there is no evidence that it will be a life-saver, but imagine that it was the case. Should we rely only on one company to produce the drug? Of course not.

Patent law already has some provisions to respond to circumstances like this, but I think that many people will be drawn to the debate because this is something that may potentially affect many people.