At a time when a third of the developing world lacks access to medicine considered “essential” by the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN should be taking any actions but those that might further limit access to those drugs. A recent decision by a UN panel will further inhibit effort to expand access to needed drugs, and could endanger millions of lives. Based on the mistaken notion that the patent rights of pharmaceutical companies are at odds with access to medicines, the UN High-Level Panel on Access to Medicines has falsely concluded that eliminating patent rights is needed to further worldwide access to medicines.
The drug panel was created “to review and assess proposals and recommend solutions for remedying the policy incoherence between the justifiable rights of inventors, international human rights law, trade rules and public health in the context of health technologies.”
While the panel scapegoats patent rights for the shortcomings in access to essential medicines in many areas of the world, most of those drugs are not protected by patents, they are available in generic versions. Despite that, millions of patients around the world still lack access to these medications.
The United States has contributed more than $110 million to the efforts of WHO to expand access to essential medicines and eradicating diseases around the world. Additionally, American pharmaceutical companies also spent almost $60 billion on research on more than 5000 medicines including those for HIV/AIDS, cancer, diabetes and other diseases. The UN should work together with the United States and the pharmaceutical companies to solve these problems rather than creating division between the various stakeholders from whom solutions to these problems can come from.
Blaming patent rights not only fails to offer a solution to the problems of access to essential medications, it is very much an impediment to that goal. It is through the protection of these intellectual property rights of drug inventors, one of the key advances that has helped civilization move forward, that the very drugs that have cured and treated so many diseases, have been developed, tested, and brought to market. This financially risky process costs considerable sums of money, and in the end, benefits us all when diseases are eradicated and illnesses are cured due to the innovation of drug inventors. If it weren’t for patents for new drugs, there would be no incentive to create those drugs. Eliminating patent rights is a solution to a non-existent problem, and one that would only further hinder efforts to expand access to drugs.
The UN drug panel should look elsewhere to find the real problems, and their answers, in expanding access to essential medications. In many areas of the planet there are problems with distribution and storage of medicines that prevent them reaching the patients who need them. The UN can look at shortages in medical expertise, problems with physical delivery systems in remote areas and limits in government health infrastructures that are challenges to access to essential medicines in many areas of the world. It will be by looking at those issues, not pitting patent rights against patent access, that the UN drug panel can work together to find reasonable and workable solutions to the challenges faced.
Given that the charge to the drug panel, by the UN, included the notion that patent rights are somehow in conflict with efforts to make essential drugs more accessible shows that the UN is not serious about expanding access to necessary drugs around the world. Given that many diseases easily treated or cured in Western nations that still plague the less developed parts of the world illustrates expansion of access, not targeting intellectual property rights, is what’s needed. If the UN drug access panel would realize this, it would go so much further in saving millions of lives around the world threatened by diseases and illnesses that are can remedied with available medications.