Buffalo Soldiers

  • by: |
  • 12/25/2007
Soldiers, that is, on behalf of the public health.

From the pages of the Buffalo News ...

Innovation can’t survive without ownership

By Peter Pitts

If you wrote a book, would you be happy to see it published under someone else’s name?

What if you spent several years of your life — and invested a large chunk of your savings — developing a new product that made life easier for you and your family? Would you regret having done so if it became “public property” at the stroke of a lawmaker’s pen?

It would probably be the end of your inventing career.

Yet when it comes to lifesaving drugs and treatments, some seem to believe that the rules of human nature and economic reality don’t apply.

In Thailand, the military-appointed government has granted the stateowned Government Pharmaceutical Organization (GPO) the authority to produce generic versions of several patented medicines. The Thai government has claimed that its goal is to provide these drugs to poor Thais, but in reality, government leaders are hoping that the GPO will become a new and highly profitable hub for the manufacture and export of all manner of copycat drugs.

Amazingly, such actions are supported by public health activists and nongovernmental organizations. Earlier this month, representatives from Doctors without Borders, Oxfam International and other organizations defended the Thai junta’s actions at a conference on drug patents held in Thailand.

And earlier this year, 22 members of Congress signed a letter to the U.S. Trade Representative expressing their support for the Thai government’s renegade action. But history demonstrates the folly of such actions.

In India, political leaders long cited former Prime Minister Indira Ghandi’s call for an end to “profiteering from life or death” in defense of their prohibition of patents on medicine. But in 2005, India reversed course and re-established patent protection for pharmaceutical products. The reason? Less than 10 percent of the nation’s estimated 3.5 million AIDS patients were receiving any medicine at all.

In other words, even if the elimination of patent rights makes drugs less costly, it doesn’t produce greater access.

There is a reason why virtually all the world’s “miracle drugs” have been developed in Western countries. It’s called incentive. Because innovation is honored and protected, inventors are rewarded for their work.

Unfortunately, once a lifesaving drug or treatment exists, it’s seductively easy to take it for granted. We sometimes forget the years of toil these things take to develop; the millions spent to bring a new drug or treatment from theory to actuality.

And because we need it, we expect it to be free. But if we allow our emotions to trump reason, and cloud our minds to the realities of human nature and economics 101, we’ll end up with a lot less innovation.

And fewer lifesaving drugs to take for granted.

Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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