Drug Makers Must Change R&D Practices Or Patent Disputes Will Continue

“[T]he impact of [a decision by the Supreme Court in India to disallow a new patent for an updated version of Novartis’ cancer drug Glivec] will likely be broader than just that issue, escalating a long-simmering fight over patented cancer medications in emerging markets,” Thomas Bollyky, senior fellow for global health, economics, and development at the Council on Foreign Relations and an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University, writes in an Atlantic opinion piece. “Rejecting the Glivec patent application is not the only step that the Indian government has taken to circumvent patents on cancer drugs,” he notes, describing how the country, as well as Indonesia, has issued compulsory licenses for other drugs, allowing local drug makers to produce them. “Three trends are driving these moves, suggesting more fights over patients, patents, and drug prices are forthcoming,” Bollyky writes, adding: “First, cancer rates are increasing fast in many developing countries”; “Second, access to effective cancer treatment, patented or otherwise, is limited in developing countries”; and, “Third, middle-income countries like India have both health and industrial policy reasons for encouraging domestic production of cancer drugs.”

“The measures that India and other countries have taken — compulsory licensing and adopting strict standards on patentability — are consistent with [their] international trade commitments, but will be corrosive to the way that pharmaceutical research and development (R&D) is funded internationally,” Bollyky states, adding, “The fight over cancer drugs in India exposes a fundamental tension in the way we fund pharmaceutical R&D.” He continues, “The solutions to fights pitting cancer patients against patents in India are more likely to reside in making the current system of funding pharmaceutical R&D work better.” He proposes, “First, multinational drugs firms can, and should, reduce the cost of R&D, which would enable these firms to better function in the increasingly price-sensitive global marketplace for drugs,” and, “Second, multinational firms must realize that there are low-income segments of the global marketplace that these firms cannot serve, but whose health needs must be met for international support of the pharmaceutical, trade, and IP system to persist.” Bollyky concludes, “The international patent system has spurred tremendous pharmaceutical innovation. … But the patent system must meet the legitimate needs of its constituents to function” (4/10).

The KFF Daily Global Health Policy Report summarized news and information on global health policy from hundreds of sources, from May 2009 through December 2020. All summaries are archived and available via search.

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