24 June 2020
In 1955, virologist Jonas Salk was asked about the intellectual property rights of his polio vaccine. To which he responded: ‘There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?’ Salk’s choice to make the vaccine patent free ultimately beat back the US polio epidemic by 1962.
The pharmaceuticals industry has ballooned in size since then, reaching an estimated value of $1.2 trillion in 2018, made possible by a patents system that grants firms at least 20 years’ exclusive rights to manufacture, sell and market new drugs.
Although an estimated two-thirds of global research and development is paid out of the public purse, manufacturers can charge governments eyewatering sums for drugs.
According to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), it costs just $0.25 to $0.50 to make the daily dose of the tuberculosis drug bedaquiline. But manufacturer Johnson & Johnson charges over eight times that cost in developing countries. Patients require up to 14,600 pills over two years, pricing thousands out of treatment.
The tension between public health and private profit has never been more visible, especially as the world searches for a vaccine against coronavirus.
Some experts point to existing provisions to compel industry to release vital drugs during times of crisis. World Trade Organization rules specify that governments can override patents to allow other manufacturers to produce generic versions of life-saving medicines – this is called compulsory licensing.
But Big Pharma