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Intellectual Property: The Key that Unlocks Access to Medicines

Intellectual Property: The Key that Unlocks Access to Medicines

It is widely acknowledged that IP rights contribute to the vitality of global economies—but what about the well-being of the world’s patients? As shown in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce International IP Index, IP protections can boost biomedical investment to address the needs of patients everywhere by developing innovative treatments for once-terminal illnesses. The Index suggests that economies with the strongest IP protections are 60 percent more likely to provide environments conducive to biotech innovation. And economies with specific protections for the life sciences field see an average of 13 times more biomedical investment than those lacking IP protections.

Why does this matter? We live in a world where concerted efforts are being made daily to erode intellectual property rights, based on the false premise that IP somehow threatens access to medical care.  While the facts simply don’t support this theory, it hasn’t stopped activists around the world from spreading misinformation and chipping away at the very IP protections that produced life-saving medicines in the first place. Just a few short years ago, India stripped a leukemia drug of its patent, claiming that it inhibited access by its citizens. The result? Due to government interference, fewer Indian citizens had affordable access to this medication than before the patent was annulled. In Canada, an overzealous judiciary revoked 25 previously granted pharmaceutical patents and sparked a case involving NAFTA protections that could do lasting harm to future investments in life-saving medicines. And Colombia’s prime minister of health has repaid medical researchers scrambling to find a cure for the Zika epidemic by pursuing an arbitrary and dangerous attack on others in the industry, effectively stripping a pharmaceutical company of its patent for another drug. It is also against this backdrop that United Nations Secretary General has pressed for establishment of a High-Level Panel on Access to Medicines (HLP) to quickly produce a report, based on the same false premise: that “failure to reduce the costs of patented medicines is resulting in millions of people being denied access to lifesaving treatments.”

In addition to the wealth of positive indicators found in the Chamber’s IP Index, new data released by the Hudson Institute tells a very different story:  as intellectual property systems have strengthened over time, public and private investment in health care has increased, as well as individual earnings to support health costs. The Hudson Institute’s report: The Patent Truth About Health, Innovation and Access points to progress made since the 1994 signing of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement. For example, health funding in developing countries has multiplied five-fold since 1990, and the infant mortality rate has dropped below five percent in low-income countries where it had once hovered above sixteen percent.

As a result of improved access to medicines, the global population has grown to seven billion, with 49 percent living in low- and lower-middle income countries. Meanwhile, with the growth of a global middle class, extreme poverty has dipped below ten percent worldwide for the first time, according to the World Bank. Further, the Hudson report identifies the true culprits of access to medicines: policy failures in the form of excessive tariffs and taxes on imported medicines, and weak healthcare infrastructures that hinder the effective distribution of medicines. The report concludes that, contrary to the HLP’s assertion that patents restrict access, “the intellectual property system has encouraged innovation that has saved millions of lives by providing the poor with access to lifesaving therapies.”

These facts matter. If world economies, and multilateral organizations like the UN, are to make effective, educated policy decisions to further enhance access to medicines, they must begin by addressing the true obstacles. To attack the IP systems that have saved countless lives would be a counterproductive and deadly mistake to make.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Patrick Kilbride is the executive director of international intellectual property policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Global Intellectual Property Center.