Protecting Pat(i)ents

Immediately preceding the United Nations General Assembly high-level meeting on non-communicable diseases (NCDs), the New York Times published an article entitled “China and India Making Inroads in Biotech Drugs” which discussed the increasingly heated battle over drug patents for this group of diseases. During the AIDS pandemic, drug manufacturers in China and India were able to create generic versions of AIDS medications and, due to the state of emergency that surrounded that pandemic, were given special permission to circumvent patents to sell these generic drugs to poor countries at a cheaper price. Now, ten years and millions of dollars later, China and India are attempting to repeat history with their generic versions of biotech drugs to treat NCDs, such as cancer and diabetes. However, the United States, among others, is opposing the possibility of poorer nations reaching an agreement that would again allow them to import these cheaper drugs and avoid adhering to patent laws. The opposition’s argument stands on the grounds that while the AIDS pandemic was a public health emergency (thus allowing leniency in patent regulations), this is not the case with NCDs and further, these diseases are an unavoidable product of longer lives.

Underlying this argument, however, is the fact that these drugs make billions of dollars for major pharmaceutical companies in rich countries; allowing the cheaper distribution of these drugs to developing worlds through Indian and Chinese manufacturers would destroy these companies’ revenues. Rituxan (for treatment of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma), Avastin (for treatment of colon cancer), and Herceptin (for treatment of breast cancer) make up half of the annual drug sales for one company mentioned, Roche Holding Ltd., with sales of Herceptin increasing faster in developing nations than in rich countries.

While I understand the need for enforcement of patent regulations, is it really necessary to further increase the major pharmaceutical companies’ astronomical profits while simultaneously keeping needed medications out of the hands of poor countries? Although maybe not quite as imminent of an emergency of the AIDS pandemic, isn’t the fact that over half of deaths worldwide are caused by NCDs a cause for concern? Further, I would argue that it is more of an emergency that we live in a system that allows pharmaceutical companies to sell life-saving medications at exorbitant prices, unaffordable for even many people in rich nations. Although I agree with the argument that prevention and education strategies in developing countries (as well as in developed nations for that matter) would lessen the burden of these diseases and should be implemented, countries that can afford drugs to treat those already suffering from disease are inevitably going to purchase these medications. If the cost of these medications is lower, then countries can put their monetary resources elsewhere and those that could not afford the drugs initially may be able to at a lower cost. Should patents really prevent sick people from receiving the treatment they need? Should we really be protecting patents instead of protecting patients?

Reference:

Harris, G. (2011 Sept 18). China and India Making Inroads in Biotech Drugs. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/19/health/policy/19drug.html?pagewanted=1&ref=policy

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