In a knowledge economy where knowledge is considered private property and is thus deserving of full protection under the law, Intellectual Property laws play a fundamental role in ensuring stability and predictability. However, it has been suggested that these laws undermine public health by tending to put the cost of essential medicines far beyond the reach of those who desperately need it most.
Intellectual property ownership is a relatively new concept of ownership with staggering social implications. For large pharmaceutical companies investing billions of dollars to continually develop new medicines against diseases, it provides the necessary incentives in the form of patents to provide wider latitude in the development, promotion, and distribution of new drugs to recoup their investments and earn significant revenues for years of research and hard work. It also serves as an incentive for pharmaceutical companies to develop new products for the prevention or treatment of common as well as dreaded diseases.
But for low-income countries struggling to provide basic healthcare services and affordable drugs to their citizens, intellectual property is an onerous imposition that threatens to wreck lives in the wake of killer diseases. The law on intellectual property rights allows pharmaceutical companies unrestricted rights to manufacture and distribute medicines at prices they command. Recent free trade agreements have extended extremely generous patent rights to multinational pharmaceutical companies, and have limited access to generic equivalent drugs.
The first level of analysis is to ask whether or not it is actually necessary to prioritize patients' rights, and if the current system has indeed been inadequate in arresting the problem. Without access to the drugs in the treatment of HIV, for example, to combat the spread of the dreaded disease, people from many countries in Africa experiencing an HIV/AIDS pandemic will die in record number. AIDS has killed more than 25 million people since it was first recognized on December 1, 1981, making it one of the most destructive pandemics in recorded history. According to current estimates, HIV is set to infect 90 million people in Africa, providing an enormous market for an anti-HIV medicine.
There is currently no vaccine or cure for HIV or AIDS. The only known method of prevention is avoiding exposure to the virus. However, an antiretroviral treatment, known as post-exposure prophylaxis is believed to reduce the risk of infection if begun directly after exposure. Current treatment for HIV infection consists of highly active antiretroviral therapy, or HAART, an expensive procedure that many poor countries in Africa are forced to take.
The second level of analysis is whether or not pharmaceutical drug companies can afford to take the pay cuts. It has been argued many times over that these drug companies need the money to innovate and to develop new techniques and new formulations. The evidence, however, militates against this. According to a paper written by Oxfam International:
In 2000, for example, the ten biggest companies in the US spent more than twice as much on marketing and administration (34%) than on R&D (14%). Pfizer spent $22.2 billion on dividends and share buybacks in 2003 and the first half of 2004, over twice the amount spent on research. Merck returned $7.3 billion,