iMed Project Blog – ‘Why are we doing this?’

It’s clear that the current system we use to produce medicines—based on patent law and intellectual property—isn’t working. Prices are kept high, people cannot access medicines and the development of certain types of therapy are prioritized over other, often much more beneficial, kinds. The monopolies patents engender also hinder market competition, keeping prices high. This matters, and this also has a number of knock-on consequences that underpin why we are working towards building a new model for medical innovation. There are several reasons we think this:

Everyone deserves access to the medicine they need to survive

There is a strong case in and of itself to ensure everyone has access to the medicines they need to survive. Access to medicines is a fundamental human right, a right that the current system of patent-driven medical innovation often comes into conflict with. The World Health Organization, amongst numerous other organizations and individuals, have repeatedly stressed the supremacy of this right over rights of intellectual property, and it is enshrined in the Doha Declaration. The Declaration, clarifying certain aspects of the TRIPS Agreement protecting international property globally, explicitly states that “the TRIPS Agreement does not and should not prevent Members from taking measures to protect public health.” States can take a number of courses of action to pursue this aim, typically involving compulsory licensing. Many face pressure not to do so, however, and the system still serves to block many accessing essential medicines. This is one of the reasons we are working towards a new model of innovation; it isn’t required that states issue compulsory licenses and companies go unrewarded for their innovation in order to pursue public health and human rights objectives. These are both possible.

Poor access to medicines affects us all

Less altruistically, there are still compelling reasons to ensure everyone has access to the medicines they require. The health of other people has a direct impact on our own health. Healthier populations are far more productive economically. A higher incidence of disease and morbidity requires far greater public expenditure, compounding the reduced economic output an unhealthy population engenders.

The health of other people in our society also determines how likely it is for us personally to be infected by disease. HIV is a case in point. Countries with strong healthcare systems and more accessible medicines have far lower rates of infection. With only 5% of the world’s population, Eastern and Southern Africa is home to half the global population living with HIV.

There is a security dimension as well. Poor global health serves to increase global instability, and failing to ensure everyone has access to necessary medications can have profound knock-on consequences and worsen existing crises.

The medicines we need may not be there when we need them

A natural byproduct of patent-driven innovation is that there are strong incentives to focus on the areas that are most profitable, and not many at all to focus on less-profitable areas. This means that the chronic afflictions affecting richer individuals typically receive far more attention than acute conditions affecting far more poorer individuals. When it really matters, then, this system means we may not have the medications we desperately need. For example, in 2008, only five major pharmaceutical companies had active antibiotics programs. The World Health Organization, in contrast, describes the growing resistance of pathogens to existing antibiotics—infections including tuberculosis, gonorrhea, and pneumonia—as the “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today.” This threat will hit all countries, rich or poor.

Similarly, the 2014 Ebola outbreak highlighted a critical lack of medicine to treat the illness, despite the disease having been known for decades. Why? There was little incentive for companies to produce a drug that only affects a handful of people in poor countries.

A new model of medical innovation, one based on benefit, would provide much better incentives for these neglected areas to be developed. It would improve access to essential medicines, enshrining a fundamental human right and improving the health outcomes for everyone.