Many will claim that patents allow Western drug companies to keep drug prices artificially high, and that patent-breaking is a cheap and easy way to get poor patients the drugs they need.
They are wrong on both counts. the drugs needed in the developing world are not patent protected. A 2004 study published in the journal Health Affairs showed that less than 2 percent of the 319 prescription drugs on the WHO's Model List of Essential Medicines are actually under patent.
What patients in the Third World need aren't patent-busting bureaucrats, but more roads, doctors, hospitals, nutritious food, and good sanitation. When roads are in disrepair, it can be particularly difficult to reach rural populations, where disease burden is highest. In places with no electricity, temperature-sensitive pills often go bad before anyone can benefit from them.
Refrigerated Coca-Cola vans have been shipping polio vaccines to the hinterlands of Cameroon, because most roads are unmotorable. Even if roads were available and medicines were donated, they must be prescribed by qualified medical staff. Patients will also need good drinking water and a good meal to enhance recovery from disease. However, the doctor-patient ratio is abysmally low and close to 60 percent of Africans do not have access to good sanitation and many subsist on less than a dollar a day.
Patents are actually a critical part of the solution. They protect the financial incentives that drive pharmaceutical companies to create innovative medications in the first place. It takes an average of $800m and 10-15 years to bring a new drug to the market. Patents ensure that pharmaceutical companies can recoup that enormous investment.
If countries start breaking patents, firms lose out on sales. And they are less able to finance the development of new cures. That is a blow to the public health efforts of all countries, rich and poor.
Ghana's health minister Courage Quashigah told me that he fails to see how people could hold antagonistic positions against pharmaceutical companies, because in his own words â€œif drugs are being made, then people must be sick somewhereâ€”it is not for charityâ€.
Poor patent enforcement also gives rise to potentially harmful copycats. The generic pharmaceuticals manufactured in the developing world often donâ€™t comply with international safety regulations and counterfeit drugs are common.
Drug patent protection is essential