By Naomie Kadima and Dilani Logan
This past week, our class had the opportunity to hear from Julia Barnes-Weise, a highly talented and experienced lawyer and the current co-director of Global Healthcare Innovation Alliances at Duke University. Ms. Barnes-Weise’s talk provided exposure on the idea and importance of patents and it’s relation to access to medicines.
Often within our field, we speak more to the idealistic idea of access to all based on the argument that health is a human right. However, Ms. Barnes-Weiss’ talk provided some added context to the importance of legal processes such as patents, and how to better leverage relationships amongst key global health stakeholders to ensure access to more individuals in need.
The explanations for the lack of access to essential medicines are multifarious, but one of the greatest barriers is affordability. The sky-high drug prices are often a result of robust intellectual property protection also known as “patents”.
Patents give owners the exclusive ability to own, utilize and produce a particular drug until the expiration date, which thereby allows companies to exclude competition and keep drug prices high. This idea is justified on the basis of a capitalist premise that patents are necessary in order to incentivize research and development processes, thereby encouraging further innovations and creativity within the pharmaceutical industry. While in an inventive sense, this idea seems very logical and innovative, the expense of it is often human lives, from those who are unable to afford or access those drugs.
For example, when the first patent-protected antiretroviral treatment for HIV patients was released the cost was over $10, 000 per patient per year. As we know, the HIV epidemic greatly affected those in Sub-Saharan Africa, a region with a high number of individuals suffering from extreme poverty even until this day. Therefore, $10, 000 per patient per year put these treatments out of sight and reach for the majority of those who so desperately needed them. However, in 2001 pharmaceutical manufacturers introduced the generic version of the antiretroviral triple therapy at $350 per patient per year. This increased the market competition and as a result the drugs became more affordable and were able to reach the masses especially in developing countries.
According to the FDA, on average the cost of a generic drug is 80-85% lower than the brand name product. One of the greatest misconceptions about generic drugs is that because it is cheaper the quality of the drug also diminishes. This is false. In order for the generic brand to be approved by the FDA it has to have the same strength, quality, purity, and potency as the brand name product.
However, the work done by academics, policy and legal peoples to foster innovation, incentivize research into medical concerns that directly impact LMICs, and concurrently reduce product prices and therefore improve accessibility, has created meaningful impacts in the dissemination of medicines. Work has been done previously by Ms. Barnes-Weise and DGHI faculty member, Dr. Jeffrey Moe in response to the UN High Commission on Access to Medicines to encourage rapid disease response and amend existing frameworks provide plausible solutions to immense access to medicine issues. They have previously put forth recommendations to utilize tax credits, public research funding, patent buyouts and prizes to improve push/pull programmes to improve and accelerate research and development incentive programmes overall.
Although there has been a wide variability and abundance of generic drugs available as resolution to access, as we saw in the MSF video in the beginning of class these companies are constantly under attack. As future global health experts I think we can all agree on the importance of protecting intellectual property, but to what extent? Is it worth losing millions of lives because they cannot afford treatment? Or should having access to essential medicines be considered as a basic human right?
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The impact of patents on access to medicines.
Moe, J., and J. Barnes-Weise. (2016). Response to the UN High Commission on Access to Medicines: “Incentives, Agreements and Stockpiling to Accelerate the Response to Infectious Disease Outbreaks.” Retrieved from: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/562094dee4b0d00c1a3ef761/t/56d52661044262887e7eedcf/1456809569974/Global+Disease+Governance+Feb+28+FINAL+%28003%29.pdf
Sampat, B. N. (2009). Academic patents and access to medicines in developing countries. American journal of public health, 99(1), 9-17.
World Health Organization (WHO). Access to Medicines. Geneva, Switzerland: WHO Press