What if…drug patents were scrapped?

Husna Rizvi makes a vital suggestion.

Illustration by Andy Carter
Illustration by Andy Carter

In 1955, virologist Jonas Salk was asked about the intellectual property rights of his polio vaccine. To which he responded: ‘There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?’ Salk’s choice to make the vaccine patent free ultimately beat back the US polio epidemic by 1962.

The pharmaceuticals industry has ballooned in size since then, reaching an estimated value of $1.2 trillion in 2018, made possible by a patents system that grants firms at least 20 years’ exclusive rights to manufacture, sell and market new drugs.

Although an estimated two-thirds of global research and development is paid out of the public purse, manufacturers can charge governments eyewatering sums for drugs.

According to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), it costs just $0.25 to $0.50 to make the daily dose of the tuberculosis drug bedaquiline. But manufacturer Johnson & Johnson charges over eight times that cost in developing countries. Patients require up to 14,600 pills over two years, pricing thousands out of treatment.

The tension between public health and private profit has never been more visible, especially as the world searches for a vaccine against coronavirus.

Some experts point to existing provisions to compel industry to release vital drugs during times of crisis. World Trade Organization rules specify that governments can override patents to allow other manufacturers to produce generic versions of life-saving medicines – this is called compulsory licensing.

But Big Pharma fights back with lawsuits. Corporate Europe Observatory predicts a wave of ‘pandemic legal disputes’ if governments try using this provision to combat coronavirus. As during the AIDS crisis, when 39 transnational pharmaceutical companies sued Nelson Mandela for defying HIV drug licences, companies are unlikely to want to make an exception for Covid-19.

The pharmaceutical patents system is based on the belief that without patents, medical innovation will cease. But researchers have shown how firms stifle innovation, engaging in ‘killer acquisitions’ to buy up smaller innovative companies, solely to stop their drug development projects and remove future competition.

It’s a broken system, not delivering the drugs we need at prices we need. At the time of writing, the world death toll from Covid-19 is 350,000. Economist Joseph Stiglitz asks: what if a global network of laboratories, without Intellectual Property (IP) lawyers breathing down their necks, ‘monitored for emerging strains of a contagious virus, periodically updated an established formula for vaccinating against it, and then made that information available to companies and countries around the world?’

It’s not pie in the sky. It’s how flu vaccine research already operates. The World Health Organization (WHO) convenes world experts twice a year to add emerging flu strains in order to update flu vaccines. Researchers from across 110 countries, funded largely by governments, are committed to this open-source science.

The infrastructure to gather, interpret and distribute actionable knowledge for the development of vaccines already exists. This system could be funded through prizes, Stiglitz suggests, rewarding companies that invent necessary new medicines. Companies would need to agree to make products patent-free, be transparent over pricing and costs and share clinical trial data so that other countries can develop the same capacity.

Researchers at Global Justice Now also propose modelling democratically owned start-up firms with workers, clinicians and patients on their boards and on the Medicines Patent Pool (MPP), a UN body set up to increase access to drugs in the Global South. Governments would retain a controlling interest in these bodies.

Abolishing the IP burden would incentivize knowledge-sharing across borders, with open-source data that any WHO member could access. With increasing vulnerability to pandemics what is needed is an ambitious strategy to compel industry to manufacture the drugs we need at scale.

Transitional steps, proposed by Washington University professors Michele Boldrin and David Levine, include shortening patent terms to slowly but surely ‘decrease the strength of intellectual property interventions’. They hasten to add: ‘the final goal cannot be anything short of abolition.’