Tuesday, November 09, 2004


Encouraging drugs for poor countries

Sunday's New York Times had an editorial, "No Requiem for Vaccines", about 2 new vaccines, for malaria and for cervical cancer, that appear most likely to benefit inhabitants of poor countries. The editorial concludes,
"Several other companies are also developing vaccines, at least some of which could become blockbuster revenue producers. The challenge will be to find ways to pay for vaccines that are desperately needed in poor countries but have little market potential in wealthy nations."
The reason is, of course, that developing new drugs is extremely expensive. For ever "blockbuster revenue producer" a pharm company comes up with, it has to cycle through any number of dry holes. They use part of the profits generated by the blockbusters to finance all the research that may or may not produce another successful, useful drug. Drugs that will primarily benefit poor countries are unlikely to produce the profits necessary to finance their creation. For all that the times says some vaccines may become blockbusters, how much money can a malaria vaccine produce? Enough to finance a generous distribution scheme in countries that can't afford it?

How 'bout this? Take a drug that primarily benefits inhabitants of rich countries - say, something that fights heart disease, which is mostly caused by poor lifestyle choices largely available only in rich countries. You tell the company, in exchange for developing drugs that would fight diseases mostly prevalent in poorer countries, or for distributing expensive drugs in countries that can't afford them, you get additional patent protection for one of your blockbusters. You'd have to figure out the expense of developing and/or distributing a drug and balance that against the additional profit to be had from an extended patent. You might even have to do it on a case-by-case basis.

The argument for patenting pharmaceuticals is expressed above: a company needs to exploit its successful drugs in order to pay for its research into all drugs, successful or not. Without that patent protection, a company could never recover its development expenses and thus would never invest in new drugs in the first place. But companies may research in areas that don't really need new drugs but that appear to be a sure thing or a potential blockbuster rather than take a risk in an area of real need or a genuine departure. Patent protection can also harm poor countries by raising the price of drugs they desperately need but simply cannot afford. In the case of anti-AIDS drugs, some poor countries are violating the patents of the drugs' producers out of desperation.

But if you extend the patent on an anti-cholesterol drug for 5 years in exchange for the company giving away a drug that cured, say, river blindness, that might be a fair tradeoff. America isn't concerned with river blindness, while Malawi does not have much of a problem with high cholesterol.

Of course, you might argue that the drug companies have a moral obligation to help the rest of the world, especially since they generate most of their profits in the United States anyway. But that argument is not likely to prevail in the real world, unfortunately, while some kind of tradoff of extended patent protection on a handful of drugs in exchange for better corporate citizenship might actually work. I think it's worth exploring by the serious healthcare professionals who look into this sort of thing.
I was looking at your posts about cancer lung and found a good article about the same cancer lung info too...

God luck with it : )
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I was looking at your posts about cancer lung and found a good article about the same cancer lung info too...

God luck with it : )
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