Innovation with Chronic Symptoms

In our last issue, our contributors speak about a number of inventions related to a notion of scientific progress with implicit problems needed to be resolved: the 3D-printer, Grafen, MAVs, fracking and air pollution in China. As technology develops, political decisions are to be taken in order for the inventions to keep their promises and ‘deliver’ the supposed relief that comes with it. Here, technology often runs into a contradiction: financing. Before anything is innovated, research and development is a cost that has to be paid. For every technological innovation that is being produced, a part of the profits generated through its release is used for further research, pushing for new technological innovations further down the line. To set the innovations – say, a new leukemia medicine – free to the public where it has its greatest effects, requires someone to pay for the tab of funding new innovations. This is the challenge that faces the world’s patent-orientated industries, such as that of pharmaceuticals.

As developing countries such as India and Indonesia has figured out, to reject patent laws for much-needed medicines and instead produce your own copy of the medicine at a much lower cost, benefits a larger amount of your poor citizens. In India, the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of granting their own licenses for developing and distributing specific drugs treating leukemia, Hepatitis B, kidney and breast cancer in spite of American patents for those medicines. Indonesia has followed the Indian example, while China and the Philippines have reconfigured their pharmaceutical laws in an attempt to try the same solution.

Access to treatment of diseases that in the developed countries would be preventable or treatable is often very limited in these areas. Medicines patented by Swiss or American companies are not affordable to the common man, something that has put pressure on the governments of India and China to address the health issues of a citizenry that enjoys longer lives, but have the fastest growing increase in cancer rates world-wide. By bypassing the patent laws, the developing countries not only address the issue, but get their hands on a very lucrative business model for breaking into the pharmaceutical market: just as with industrial jobs a decade ago, patents are unimportant if you have a cheaper work-force and bureaucracy. Local producers lower the cost for the governments and the patients, and in the long run, with other diseases such as diabetes and respiratory illnesses on the rise in developing countries, the cost is likely to go down for consumers in other parts of the globe as well.

But it does raise the question of funding. Patenting drugs and charging high prices for them in order to develop more drugs generates new medicines but limits the access to those medicines to those affording them. Is the choice really between developing new medicines with limited accessibility or distribute what we have and stop the innovation completely?
The pharmaceutical companies seem to have answered yes to that question, investing enormous sums on the emerging markets of an increasingly aging and ailing Asian population, while the countries themselves seem more reluctant to give an answer. The current patent system for funding research and development of new medicinal innovations serves Europe and U.S. very well: trillions of dollars and millions of workers, but it needs to be revised with the emergence of the new powers of the East. How should that be done?

First and foremost, the price-tag for developing new medicines must be lowered in the pharmaceutical business, something that is currently being done in the labs where research failure rates of obscene levels up until now have been a common way of spinning the wheel. But it also has to be done in the board meeting rooms: lower the costs and channel the licenses and patents so that developers in the developing countries can afford producing the drugs without having to go around the legislature or making up their own.

The patent system will not survive a developing world working on their own terms; instead the patent system needs to be reconfigured to suit the needs of those requiring the medicines and treatments, not big business.

Text: Josef Svantesson

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