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Wednesday, 14 November, 2001, 12:36 GMT
Cheap drugs: Should developing countries be allowed to bypass patents?
Trade negotiators have worked through the night at the WTO talks in Doha, Qatar to reach a compromise deal to ensure that poor countries have access to medicines.
The text reportedly accepted by a ministerial working group states that the World Trade Organisation's intellectual property rights accord, known as TRIPS, "shall not prevent (WTO) members from taking measures to protect public health".
Developing countries had opposed the United States and Switzerland, demanding the right to override patents and have open access to cheaper generic drugs in times of a health crisis.
Many developing countries say they cannot afford the cost of expensive drugs needed to treat diseases like Aids and malaria.
Do you welcome this breakthrough? Should developing countries have the right to exemption from existing drug patent protection rules? Or do you think this will undermine research and development on new drugs?
This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
Seeing that it can take up to 7 years to get a drug approved only a few "blockbusters" actually make a profit. Without patenting, no-one would spend the vast sums required on development and safety testing. We would end up with a whole load of risky herbal remedies of dubious efficacy. Of course some countries are so poor or facing such massive health problems that they cannot afford to contribute at the same level as The West. We must all take responsibility for them and not just blame the drug companies or the system that has delivered extraordinary advances in life expectancy and quality of life in the 20th century.
This is a tough one, for one can see that for the drug companies to be bothered in invest in R&D, they have to be able to make money out of their labors. On the other hand, people are dying for lack of affordable and otherwise available drugs. If the patents are revoked (and revokable), there will be no incentive for drug companies to invest the huge sums of money necessary to develop new drugs. One is tempted to say there should be more government investment in R&D, with the drug companies just being "manufacturers", but I'm not sure that would work either. But a middle road has to be found here.
Those governments could then do what they like with the products, including making them available cheaply or freely to third world countries. Until then the responsibility we in the west have to those dying of AIDS, not to mention malaria, which kills more people, is to dig into our pockets to fund charities or state aid through taxes.
But please stop bleating about the pharmaceutical industry's greed and abuse of patent law.
Lots of people are focussing on the fact that drugs are cheap to manufacture, and that is true. But manufacturing is a tiny fraction of the overall cost of a drug. The vast majority of the expense comes in the research and development. If drug companies cannot charge enough to recoup that cost because their products are being copied, then there will be no new drugs to copy. It's time to ask yourself, which is actually better for the human race, expensive drugs or no drugs at all?
It's an admirable idea to remove patenting for drugs and medication, so that cheap treatment is available for all. However, in practice, it wouldn't work because the motivation for pharmaceutical companies to spend billions of pounds on research and development is that they will get their money back. Absence of a patent would mean that anyone could "steal" their idea, thus reducing the extent to which they can recoup their investment.
Andrew Cover, UK
I agree with the idea in principle. However, drug companies should be allowed to recoup their drug discovery costs. If they don't there will be no-one prepared to develop the next generation of drugs to combat more diseases in the future.
While agreeing that human life is far more important than patents, I feel that we should acknowledge the fact that drug companies need to make a profit. They invest billions of their own money into research and development, in the hope of finding the next big breakthrough. This is probably the only way in which we are likely to find cures for cancers and genetic disorders. I'm not sure if a solution can be worked out - maybe sell drugs cheaper to different countries depending on their GDPs? I don't know. But the drug companies aren't only big capitalist ogres who don't value human life; quite the opposite - they're the ones making the breakthroughs. Please take a more balanced view.
We know for sure that the poor cannot afford to buy these expensive drugs, but can we afford to leave them in lurch? The war on life-threatening diseases can be considered as much significant as the war on terrorism itself and in such an event, the protection of drug patent laws cannot be allowed to become a stumbling block in protecting the basic human rights.
Drugs should be exempt from patent rules in any country. The purpose of drugs is to help those people who need them but unfortunately being in a capitalist environment profits come before people's lives.
G. T. Smith, Scotland UK
It's tragic that so many people have no access to drugs that could save their lives. But we have to keep things in their proper perspective. Drug companies invest billions of dollars in researching new drugs, how much of that is lost on drugs that don't work? Who finds this money? The ones that are successful must be protected by patents to provide sufficient profits for investors, and more funds for more research.
If a particular drug is deemed so important to save life on an international scale, then those countries that need it should give fair compensation to the drug manufacturer, who would then produce the original cheaply for general distribution. We should never allow any company to copy drugs that would not be subject to thorough testing. We can be sure that any company that took it on themselves to reproduce these drugs would not be doing this on humanitarian grounds, it would be for PROFIT.
No - theft is theft, and theft of intellectual property, no matter how useful it is, is no different.
At nominal price, Poor countries should be allowed to bypass patents for concerns in relations to public health. Research and development may suffer if some constraints are not imposed. And those constraints should relate to avoidance of patents only in relation to major widely spreading disease like AIDS etc.
I'll be interested to see what happens when some Third World country develops a new medicine itself. Will they be as eager to surrender patent rights are they are to seize them?
American drug companies have been violating non-US patents for many years. They have also repeatedly tried to patent traditional medicines used in many cultures. There will be no undermining of research at all, as more money is spent on pharmaceutical advertising than is spent on research.
Qasam Ahmad, Canada
Patents for important medication is just a sick reminder of how far greed can go, be it in the richest or poorest nation on earth. The ability to patent any drug should be outlawed. We need to go the whole way and abolish all patenting.
James Pitman's comments are incredible. No patents, no incentive, no inventions as a result, including drugs. Without patents most of today's drugs would not have been developed. South Africa demonstrated at the sale of UK gold reserves because it reduced the gold price and they wanted high prices; but then they complain of too expensive drugs!! So there is an agreement on both sides and a balance is required. It's a question of balance; for medical emergencies countries should be able to pay minimum royalties but lets not be black and white about it.
The cost of developing drugs is astronomical. There are usually five or six phases before a drug goes live from the time a compound is identified to it actually reaching the shelves. Each phase takes about 2 years at a cost of Billions. What James needs to realise is that without patents research companies will fold and there will be no drugs for anybody. What is required is greater sponsorship in poorer countries for these medicines.
By removing patents these companies will never recover their costs and R&D spend would be slashed in the pioneering companies, which would be a disaster.
This is not as simple as it sounds. If we followed the crackpot advice of James Pittman, then all medical research would stop, hundreds of thousands of people's jobs would be lost, and most importantly no new medicines would be developed to treat disease. Ever. Is this really what he wants? We can't just draw a line in the sand and say 'OK this will do, we have all the medicines we will ever need'. It takes about 12 years and millions of pounds to research any drug, and the investment needed is massive. If we do not allow companies to make this investment back via the price of the drugs, then there will be no more research, it is that simple. No cure for HIV, no better cures for cancer, Alzheimers, CJD etc. etc. etc.
Put more simply, if we had never let inventors profit from their inventions, we would all still be living in the dark ages. Is that really what people want? The end of progress? It's an incredibly short-sighted viewpoint. In the last 50-100 years we have seen incredible progress in healthcare and disease treatment and prevention. This is a direct result of allowing some of the very cleverest, committed and innovative people in the world to form and work for companies, which develop and sell drugs. Sure the world is not a perfect place, but that envisaged by some people on this page is a far worse one in my opinion. (And no, I don't work for a pharmaceutical company)
No one should be denied proper medical care. If this requires the abolition of some patents, it should be allowed, though only as long as the copied drugs are of decent quality. The drug companies would still get their usual income, if this was be implemented in the poorest countries only and properly monitored.
This move is good for the developing countries. We who can afford expensive drugs or have access to every sort of medication have also got a moral duty to ensure the well-being of other individuals on this planet. The only potential drawback of this is that these countries could export these generic drugs to other countries. They will have to be prohibited from doing so. We must at the same time ensure that funding is not affected for more research and development by these companies for new drugs.
To Arif; how will you prevent exports of generics and at the same time maintain levels of R&D investment? James; how will people find new cures and treatments for cancer if patents are abolished? What incentive is there for anyone to do any new work if it will simply be copied straight away? Drug companies spend research money far more efficiently than governments and attract a higher calibre of graduates and PhD students. As such, they are entitled to be rewarded for their great work combating disease.
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