Why We Shouldn’t Rely on Patents to Encourage Medical Innovation

In an op-ed debate in the Wall Street Journal, Els Torreele, director of our Access to Essential Medicines Initiative, argued that proposals to extend patents on pharmaceuticals would not increase innovation for critical health needs. Instead, they would solidify a broken innovation model that primarily serves the financial interest of the pharmaceutical industry at the expense of patients worldwide.

True medical innovation usually originates in academic research labs and research institutes, often supported with public funding, where researchers build upon the current state of medical knowledge to come up with new ideas and strategies to tackle diseases. It is the commercialization of these findings that heavily relies on patents. Patent monopolies allow pharmaceutical companies to block competition and sell their products at premium prices. Market opportunity, not innovation or medical advance, is the key motivator in the pharmaceutical industry.

As Torreele notes in her op-ed:

Scientific reviews of new drugs released between 1996 and 2006 show that very few represented therapeutic innovation; most were no better than existing products or were actually inferior. Meanwhile, we have a severe deficit in innovation for urgent medical needs, such as antibiotic-resistant infections, rare diseases and diseases that primarily affect people living in the developing world, such as tuberculosis and tropical diseases.

Boosting sales through longer patents may be good for shareholders, but it is difficult to see how this would encourage medical innovation in the current system.

Rather than extending patents—a tool that has proved useless in encouraging medical innovation in recent decades—Torreele argues for a regulatory environment that makes approval of new drugs contingent on therapeutic advances that address unmet health needs. In parallel, public and private resources should be mobilized for medical innovation independently of patents, so that we can stop relying on pharmaceutical sales as the primary source of funding for research.

Torreele writes:

A pharmaceutical business model based on these premises would ensure that research on critical health needs is prioritized, and that medicines resulting from this research are affordable. Twenty-first century science and technology have the potential to tackle many important unmet health needs. It would be a tragedy if we miss this unique opportunity.

Read the full debate online.

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3 Comments

Do you really think that medical innovations should not be encouraged? I believe that it makes sense if among patents isssued with commercial purposes there are might be some or at least one that is worth promoting! For instance, Anticancer agent (http://patentsbase.com/items/US-6359000-B1-Anticancer-agent): some people are hoping and believing in its curing effect and how will you tell them that it might be an analogue and it is just a market tool of getting more profits?

Hi Masha, of course we need to encourage medical innovation. That's the point. The problem is the current system is broken and there's been very little innovation because pharmaceutical companies focus too much on "easy" drugs that are deemed to be most profitable. We need more innovation on cancer drugs, as you mention, and drugs to treat diseases that impact poorer countries -- there's not much money to be made in those markets, so these problems go ignored by big companies.



We need both public and private resources to finance research and development independently of patents, so that potential profits are not the main motivation behind which diseases and treatments get researched. This is something the WHO is currently exploring, and there are some not-for-profit models that demonstrate that we don't have to rely on pharmaceutical companies to set the agenda on medicines.

What those of us who interested in this subject have come to realise is that the cures advocated by the Pharmaceuticals are more destructive than helpful. The vaccines they have been administering to many of the world's children and young adults are seriously flawed. They contain agents and viruses that create adverse side effects because the Phramceuitical Industry has been using animals to develop their vaccines. This has caused serious contamination for which they have no effective way of destroying.

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