A United Nations panel has a controversial idea for improving patient access to necessary medicines: curb intellectual property rights. The UN High Level Panel on Access to Medications recently released its anticipated report, which argues that respecting health technologies’ patent protections may run counter to “public health objectives.” The report recommends multiple changes to reduce patent protections and suggests that government, not industry, could fund drug research and development.
A variety of stakeholders have spoken out against both the panel’s approach and its rationale:
- The United States Department of State called the report “fundamentally flawed” and “narrowly focused.” The department also warned about the impact of disincentivizing research, retorting “There can be no access to drugs that have not been developed.”
- The patient advocacy community responded in unanimous outcry. In a letter to UN Secretary John Kerry, more than 50 patient organizations warned that undermining patents would have the opposite effect of what the UN intended. The move “could lead to declining investments in R&D, and in turn deprive patients worldwide of critical advances and breakthroughs.”
- Organizations of major research universities also expressed disbelief, noting that, “intellectual property rights make the existence of, and access to, these critical drugs and technologies more likely, not less.”
- In a Washington Examiner op-ed, the National Association of Manufacturers’ Linda Dempsey explained that, “Of those products defined by the WHO as ‘essential medicines’ — that is, urgently needed by the world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries — fully 95 percent are off-patent and no longer subject to IP protections.”
- Joseph Allen of IPWatchdog® noted that real-world barriers to access for developing countries include, “poor transportation systems, lack of available health care and education, endemic poverty, trade barriers, systematic corruption and, of course, the cost of drugs.”
It remains to be seen if – and to what extent – the panel’s recommendations will be implemented by member nations.
Allergan’s Social Contract
Meanwhile, in the United States, public dialogue on the issues of prescription drug access and cost has given rise to an intriguing new partnership between one pharmaceutical company and the patients who depend upon its products. Allergan – known for its treatments in dermatology, eye care and gastroenterology – has unveiled a “Social Contract with Patients.”
In a blog post, Allergan CEO Brent Saunders promised that, “Where we increase price on our branded therapeutic medicines, we will take price increases no more than once per year and, when we do, they will be limited to single-digit percentage increases.” He also committed to not raising prices without cause as a product nears the end of its patent life, a practice that companies sometimes use.
The move suggests a step toward restoring good will between pharmaceutical companies and patients, many jaded by the price gouging of the industry’s bad players, such as Martin Shkreli. Of the contract, Saunders notes, “It is good for Allergan, and it is also vital for our most important constituents – the medical professionals and patients who count on us….”
Brian Kennedy, executive director of the Alliance for Patient Access, praised the contract’s potential for patients and health care providers. “Sudden and extreme price increases can undermine patient access while disrupting physicians’ ability to direct patient care. With a commitment like Allergan’s, patients and health care providers can rest assured that they won’ t be surprised by extraordinary price hikes, and that the company will continue to innovate and create valuable new treatments for them.”