Drug patent protection regime needs to change

The public can’t continue to pay for the inaction of policymakers

The EU needs to work to make patent protection fairer. It works well for big pharma at present, but not quite so well for patients.  Photograph: iStock

The EU needs to work to make patent protection fairer. It works well for big pharma at present, but not quite so well for patients. Photograph: iStock

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At the international Aids conference earlier this week a UK academic used a chart to point out the profits and tax-avoidance practices of pharmaceutical giants. He noted Pfizer held $69 billion (€59bn) of taxes offshore, thus avoiding $20 billion in US taxes. Merck, he said, had $57 billion offshore, and avoided $16 billion in US taxes. The list went on.

The rationale behind highlighting this was to note that patent protection lasts far too long. Pharmaceutical companies are well able to soak up sufficient profits and sufficiently cover their research and development costs without having exclusive rights to produce a drug for the length of time they currently do.

These arguments play out in our courts almost weekly, and this week generic producers Mylan and Teva won a small battle with Gilead which effectively allows those generic producers to sell a drug that does the same thing as Gilead’s Truvada drug for 85 per cent less. That battle isn’t over, however.

With HIV aids these developments have helped with ensuring viral suppression is decreasing, which could ultimately bring the disease under control.

What that shows is that access to drugs is the best way to deal with diseases, and particularly those of the viral variety. What the court battle between Gilead and Co showed us was that patent protection doesn’t necessarily apply to a drug if a new use has been found for it.

This is undoubtedly progress. But there’s considerable work still to be done to ensure originator pharmaceutical companies – or those who invent a drug – don’t take the proverbial biscuit. Without giving too much away, the European Union needs to work to make patent protection fairer. It works well for big pharma at present but not quite so well for patients.

In the interest of trying to put a cap on costs for our already stretched health service, the patent regime has got to change. In particular it has got to be more flexible. Drugs that will have widespread take up, like a hit single, shouldn’t be on patent for more than 15 years. Perhaps that’s reasonable for the more expensive drugs, but the public can’t continue to pay for the inaction of policymakers.

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