I have spent most of this week suffering the worst case of malaria. As I was collapsing over the pharmacy counter and the assistant totted up the cost of my health, I saw first-hand the public importance of drugs and the power of the monopolising pharmaceutical companies.
Intellectual property is the owning of knowledge; the rules are inscribed in the TRIPS agreements, (Trade Regulations on Intellectual Property) from the mantra of the World Trade Organisation.
This asserts the right of the major drug companies to ‘own’ the knowledge of these life-saving medicines.
The argument for having such a system is simple; incentive needs to be woven into a product for the painstaking research and development that new medicines require.
The patent that a drug company then receives, currently 20 years, is the carrot for them to continue researching and designing, it generates supply for demand and high quality products.
Kofi Annan in 2001 spoke of the TRIPS agreement as the “key to bringing forward new medicines, vaccines and diagnostics urgently needed for the health of the world’s poorest people”.
The intellectual reasoning behind these agreements is logical, much as the arguments behind global trade liberalisation are logical; however the problem is TRIPS (like Free Trade) doesn’t work for the worlds poorest. Its works against them.
The impacts of patents can be shown with a brief glance back to 2001 and the hounding of the South African government by 39 pharmaceutical companies.
The issue was the government’s commission for generic versions of anti-retrovirals, needed to combat the mushrooming numbers of HIV/AIDS sufferers in South Africa.
After recognising the scale of the HIV/AIDS crisis they chose identical drugs to the brand labelled to provide treatments 15 times less expensive.
The public furore at the crisis forced the pharmaceuticals - waving their patents in the courts – to beat back. However the problem remains that drug patents lead to monopolies, and like any monopoly, uncompetitive prices.
It is not only financial burdens that harm the poorest; innovation and investment, the buzz words for defensive pharmaceuticals is lost when there aren’t fat returns; unfortunately tropical diseases are not lucrative. Despite 90% of all deaths result from tropical diseases, from 1975 to 1997, only 13 of the 1233 new drugs on the market combat these diseases.
The system does not work for the public; however the pharmaceutical companies maintain a grip on their favourable terms with suitably underhand and coercive manipulation.
In the US alone these companies have paid $3bn to political lobbyists to ensure their interests are passed in bills.
Joseph Stiglets, the noble-prize economist, is a large critic.
He has called for a new system of large government payouts to incentivize the development of new drugs and scrap the current patent system. Once new drugs are made the information is free for all, consumers benefit, the poorest benefit and research will challenge the most endemic and deadly diseases.
The latest challenge to human rights at the expense of intellectual property rights is the refusal by Roche, a Swiss company, to allow cheap, generic copies of Tamiflu –treatment for Swine Flu.
However public pressure changed the anti-retroviral patent terms and public pressure can challenge the pandering of human rights for pharmaceutical company profits.
The author is a regular columnist