The Real Barriers to Accessing Affordable Medicines

In today’s WSJ Europe, International Policy Network’s Alec van Gelder, has a great op-ed on intellectual property rights and access to medicines. In the opinion piece, he rightfully criticizes activist groups and international NGO’s who continue to promote the expropriation of patent rights through the use of compulsory licenses.

Compulsory licenses are permits granted by a government to use patents, copyrighted works or other types of intellectual property for a specific purpose, in this case to bring medicines to poorer countries in the midst of a public health crisis. While no one denies the importance of delivering safe, affordable drugs to the world’s poor, the route by which many are calling to take is paved with harmful consequences that affect the future of research and development on these critical drugs.

A great deal has been written on this site about how weak IP rights negatively affect the economy. However, beyond the detriment to the economy, weakening IPR’s also puts the public’s health and safety at risk. The medicines that patients are using today, whether patented or generic are available because of laws that encourage innovation. The use of compulsory licenses only serves to discourage the investment of billions of dollars pharmaceutical manufacturers currently put into R & D of the next generation of life-saving medicines. Additionally, countries with weak patent rules have been linked on many occasions with sub-standard or counterfeit products.

In the piece, van Gelder outlines the real barriers to acquiring affordable drugs writing:

“The real public health problems on the ground have little to do with intellectual property rights and the cost of drugs. Rather, in the world’s poorest countries the sick and the dying are being failed by the lack of investment in domestic health care infrastructure. At July’s African Union summit, leaders were confronted with WHO figures showing that only six member countries have met their 2001 pledge to invest 15% of their national output on health care.”

“The real global public health problem is that for every aid dollar African governments receive for health care they divert up to $1.14 of their own resources to other areas. And aid for health care more than doubled from $8 billion in 1995 to $19 billion in 2006.”

What is more, if compulsory licenses are to be issued, many factories in African countries are incapable of meeting the minimum quality standards for the medicine, increasing the risk of creating drug-resistant strains of the world’s most dangerous viruses.

Governments need to first look at its own policies that create barriers to the delivery of affordable medicines before going after “Big Pharma.”