U.N. Panel's Misguided Attempts At Health Reform

yanmar cyclone survivors wait in line for medicine at a temple being used as a temporary shelter on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar. Such medicines can be life savers, but new U.N. plans to weaken patent protection for drugs could mean fewer are available in the future. (AP)

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wants to improve billions of people's access to medicines -- and he's convened a special panel to figure out how to do it. Unfortunately, he's sent them barking up the wrong tree.

The High-Level Panel on Access to Medicine is tasked with remedying the "policy incoherence" that exists between patent laws and public health. The panel will soon publish a report that's expected to call for weaker patent protections.

That will do precisely nothing to improve access to medicines. There are many barriers to quality health care, but patent laws aren't one of them. A new study from the University of Ottawa concludes as much, showing that of the 375 medicines deemed "essential" by the World Health Organization, patents for 95% of them had expired.

In short, patents aren't preventing developing countries from accessing cheap generic drugs.

The panel would be wise to refocus its efforts on actual obstacles impeding these nations' access to medicines.

For example, many developing countries lack proper delivery systems. In a 2015 survey conducted by Medecins Sans Frontieres, one in three health facilities in South Africa reported shortages of tuberculosis and HIV drugs. Though the drugs were being imported in sufficient quantities, they consistently failed to reach patients because of "local logistical and management problems."

Several countries' clinics lack an adequate supply of medicines and vaccines because they're located in remote areas, with treacherous -- or even impassable -- roads. Ninety-five percent of roads in Africa, in fact, wash out annually.

In addition to these infrastructure issues, developing countries also have governments that underinvest in health. While most EU countries invest 8%-11% of GDP in health, very few developing countries in Asia or Africa spend more than 5%.

Inadequate roads or a dearth of refrigerators to keep medicines from spoiling are precisely the kinds of challenges that can be solved with direct actions and simple approaches.

That's why many private-sector organizations, civil society groups, and governments have alerted the panel to these challenges in submitted comments.

But the panel has continued to look exclusively at intellectual property laws, so it could end up turning medical progress on its head.

If the panel recommends weakening patent protections, drug firms may lose an important incentive to research and develop new medicines. On average, out of the 5,000 drugs that enter preclinical testing, only one of them -- after roughly 12 years of extensive and expensive testing -- ever makes it to market. Drug makers take on huge risks with every chemical that they put into the pipeline. Patents, which give them exclusive rights to market their product, are the only thing that makes such an endeavor worthwhile.

Thus, strong patent laws yield the medications that save millions of lives in developing countries. In the past five years, treatments for malaria have saved more than a million lives in Africa.

The panel is undoubtedly well-intentioned. But it will likely do little to expand access to affordable, high-quality drugs in developing countries.

  • Fischer served as prime minister of the Czech Republic (2009-10), vice president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (2010-12), Czech minister of finance (2013-14), and president of the European Council (2009).