E-DRUG: Guardian article on Meningitis Patent
Are patents both necessary and sufficient for the development of new
pharmaceuticals? This is not a black and white question, but one with a
whole lot of greys. Yes patents provide an incentive to develop new
medications, but primarily ones that have a large market (read dollar)
potential-witness the fact that there is almost no work being done to
develop new antimalarial drugs or malaria vaccines. The population in need
of these medications is huge, but is also very poor and consequently it is
not of sufficient economic value to the pharmaceutical companies. (Malaria
is only one of many examples.)
Are patents necessary for the development of a R&D based pharmaceutical
industry. To listen to the arguments from the industry and from
representatives of developed countries the answer would be "yes". But
history does not necessarily agree with that opinion. Broadly speaking
there are two types of patents: product patents (patents on the actual
product) and the much weaker process patents (patents on the method used to
make the product). France only introduced product patents in 1960, Germany
in 1968, Japan in 1976, Switzerland in 1977 and Italy and Sweden in 1978.
All of these countries had very active, innovative pharmaceutical
industries before they allowed product patents. There are a number of
Third World countries that inherited very strong patent systems because of
their colonial heritage, but none of them have an innovative, domestic
Patents are one way of encouraging R&D but we have to realize that they
encourage selective R&D and only in a certain group of countries. The
challenge is to develop new ways of generating R&D in the diseases of poor
countries both by the existing multinational companies and in the countries
where the problems are endemic.
Joel Lexchin MD
121 Walmer Rd.
CANADA M5R 2X8
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Richard Laing M.B. Ch.B. M.Sc. M.D. Tel 1-617-414-1444
Associate Professor, Fax 1-617-638-4476
Department of International Health,
Boston University School of Public Health,
715 Albany Street, T4W
Boston MA 02118 USA
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