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.
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.