Poverty, Not Pharmaceutical Patents, Leading Factor in Lack of Access to Medicine in Developing Countries

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Poverty, not pharmaceutical patents, is the leading factor to a lack of access to essential medicines in developing countries. A study of the issue in sixty-five such countries, published in the Journal of Health Affairs, finds a rarity in patenting most of the World Health Organization (WHO)'s Model List of Essential Medicines (WHO- EML).

Poverty, not pharmaceutical patents, is the leading factor to a lack of access to essential medicines in developing countries. A study of the issue in sixty-five such countries, published in the Journal of Health Affairs, finds a rarity in patenting most of the World Health Organization (WHO)'s Model List of Essential Medicines (WHO- EML).

"…patents for essential medicines are uncommon in poor countries and cannot readily explain why access to those medicines is often lacking, suggesting that poverty, not patents, imposes the greater limitation on access, "notes the study.    

The study, by Amir Attaran of the UK-based Royal Institute of International Affairs, finds no correlation between patent practice and access to medicines in poor countries. Out of 319 medicines the study examined, only 19 were patented, which in itself defeats the argument activist organizations usually advance to the effect that pharmaceutical patents have stymied access to medicines. And among the 19 medicines found to have been patented, the basic patents of two of them were actually found to be ineffective: the patent rights of eflornithinewere had been donated to WHO for common good, while those one for tamoxifen had actually expired.

"The typical developing country is likely to have fewer essential medicines under patent or pending application…." the study notes. Attaran, the study's principal researcher, attributes this scenario to the fact that many pharmaceutical companies don't usually bother to seek patents in developing countries, even when they legally have the option. One of the reasons for not doing so is that populations in those countries don't even have enough disposable income to spend on patented medicines. "With so little revenue at stake, most drug companies decided to forgo patent protection in these countries, and patenting is commonplace only in large, middle-income countries."

Another reason for pharmaceutical companies not aggressively pursuing patenting of essential medicines in developing countries is that they [developing countries] don't even have patent laws and, worse, patent offices.

The study also found that patents hardly affect access to generic versions of essential medicines. "There are no patent barriers to accessing generic essential medicines in 98.6 percent of the cases we studied," says Attaran.

He concludes that assumptions -- in the activist community that pharmaceutical patents act as barriers to accessing affordable medicines, and from pharmaceutical companies that it's necessary to protect intellectual property rights on a global scale to insulate their research and development endeavors -- are patently wrong.

"Patents cannot cause essential medicines to be inaccessible in "many" developing countries because they do not exist 98.6 percent of the time; similarly, patents cannot be a "global" necessity of pharmaceutical business because companies forgo them 69 percent of the time."

About Pharmaceutical News 2.0:
Pharmaceutical News 2.0 presents information related to the issues facing the pharmaceutical industry. Pharmaceutical News 2.0 is edited by James Njoroge, a former journalist who comments on science and technology issues touching on the developing world. http://www.pharmaceuticalnews2.com/

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