Why the Race to Treat Malaria is More Like a Marathon

By Ashley Mergen

I’m not sure if you were under the same impression as I was, but I thought the malaria vaccine had been figured out, more or less. So imagine my surprise when the scientific community was atwitter earlier this week at the announcement of hopeful results from a preliminary vaccine, RTS,S, which could provide a breakthrough in blocking malaria.

That’s right. After decades of research, scientists are still struggling to develop an anti-malarial that actually works. In the mean time, this deadly disease is killing 600,000 sub-Saharan children yearly, with millions upon millions having perished over the years as doctors and scientists race to find the key to fighting this devastating infection.

Like finding the cure for cancer, this race is turning out to be more like a marathon. Health professionals have exhausted nearly 30 years of research and development and invested hundreds of millions of dollars to not just eradicate, but merely slow down the spread of malaria.

This means that companies and organizations are risking an extraordinary amount of time and resources on the mere chance that they’ll make a breakthrough that will benefit human kind. Policies encouraging such research, like intellectual property (IP) rights, are paramount to providing those in need with access to life-saving technological and pharmaceutical advancements, like RTS,S.

However, unhelpful patent policies—like those emanating out of India—could throw the whole business of medical research into a tailspin. This summer’s spate of patent revocations, denials, and compulsory licenses of internationally-recognized innovative medicines in India is sending reverberations to innovators across the globe, potentially hampering future research on cancer, malaria, and the like.

Doctors, scientists, inventors, and investors need the assurance that their life’s work isn’t in vain. The only way to deliver these cures to patients is to make sure they’re developed in the first place. IP rights are important for driving an industry of global research and development into pursuing the more complex health problems that humans face.  There is perhaps no other industry where you’ll find folks who have failed 1,000 times through trial and error, but still persist in the hope that success in the form of a vaccine is on the horizon.

We need these companies and their people to stay in the race because there’s an awful lot of people in need waiting at the finish line.

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