[Ip-health] Alex van Gelder's op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (EUROPE): How to Worsen Africa's Health Crisis Killing off drug patents will kill off innovation and patients.

Thiru Balasubramaniam thiru at keionline.org
Mon Aug 30 05:30:24 PDT 2010


	• AUGUST 29, 2010, 2:47 P.M. ET

How to Worsen Africa's Health Crisis Killing off drug patents will  
kill off innovation and patients.

Faced with Africa's devastation by HIV/AIDS, people are looking for  
scapegoats. Global pressure groups and now the World Health  
Organization are targeting "Big Pharma." The drug companies do make  
easy targets but that doesn't make them villains. The life-saving  
treatments they create remain Africa's best hope. The misguided battle  
against pharmaceutical companies' patent rights will only make  
Africa's health crisis worse.

Intellectual property rights for AIDS drugs are "the biggest public  
health challenge" as they make them too costly for most Africans, Hans  
Hogerzeil, head of the WHO's Essential Medicines program, recently  
said. They are "a barrier to access," he previously claimed, but the  
real barriers are the lack of infrastructure and the diversion of aid  
money. Fewer than 5% of WHO's 423 Essential Medicines are currently  
protected by patents—mostly advanced "second-line" anti-AIDS medicines.

More work still needs to be done to improve the availability of HIV/ 
AIDS treatments. But experience has proven that we need not tear up  
drug patents to achieve this. The twelve-fold increase in those  
receiving treatment over the last decade came as companies joined  
public-private partnerships and granted voluntary patent licenses to  
lower-cost "generics" manufacturers. Those programs were further aided  
by pharmaceutical companies cutting prices in developing countries.  
Many of these are drugs still under patent, including the few on the  
WHO Essential Medicines list.

Still, health activists, such as Michelle Childs, policy director at  
Doctors Without Borders, argue that more availability requires more  
"compulsory licences"—government orders that override patents to allow  
domestic production with minimal royalties to rights-holders. Yet  
trampling over intellectual property rights removes drug companies'  
incentives to invest billions of dollars in the development of the  
next generations of anti-retrovirals. These treatments will be  
essential when—not if—the AIDS virus mutates and renders the current  
treatments useless.

Maybe the increasing supply of medicines is why compulsory licenses  
have only been used a few times over the past decade. The World Trade  
Organization clause that allows compulsory licences to import minimal- 
royalties copies when a country lacks domestic manufacturing has been  
used only once, when Rwanda invoked it briefly to treat 21,000 AIDS  
patients. Yet the activists' scratched record repeats its refrain.

While this campaign about intellectual property and access to drugs  
continues, lower-profile diseases, such as respiratory infections and  
diarrhoea, remain bigger killers in the poorest countries. These two  
preventable diseases alone claim over four million victims a year  
according to the WHO, compared to about three million for AIDS. If the  
activists were right that prices and patents are the main barriers,  
the treatments for these diseases, which are very cheap and off- 
patent, should be widely available. But anti-infectives and oral  
rehydration treatments remain scarce in the world's poorest countries.

The real public health problems on the ground have little to do with  
intellectual property rights and the cost of drugs. Rather, in the  
world's poorest countries the sick and the dying are being failed by  
the lack of investment in domestic health care infrastructure. At  
July's African Union summit, leaders were confronted with WHO figures  
showing that only six member countries have met their 2001 pledge to  
invest 15% of their national output on health care.

The real global public health problem is that for every aid dollar  
African governments receive for health care they divert up to $1.14 of  
their own resources to other areas. And aid for health care more than  
doubled from $8 billion in 1995 to $19 billion in 2006.

The WHO and international activists are diverting attention from this  
investment crisis with their campaign against intellectual property.  
The poorest will not be saved by fashionable campaigns against Big  
Pharma. Killing off patents will kill off innovation and patients.

Mr. van Gelder is project director at the International Policy Network.


Thiru Balasubramaniam
Geneva Representative
Knowledge Ecology International (KEI)
thiru at keionline.org

Tel: +41 22 791 6727
Mobile: +41 76 508 0997

More information about the Ip-health mailing list