Should patents be granted on life-saving vaccines and drugs?

3 November 2014 | By Cause4 staff

Millions of people in developing countries do not have access to potentially life-saving medicines because they – or their government – cannot afford them due to the high price of drugs. One of the reasons for high drug prices is patents, which is a right granted to the owner of an invention that prevents others from making, using, importing or selling the invention without permission. New drugs, diagnostic tests and vaccines needed to treat, detect or prevent a whole range of diseases are patented. But should patents be granted on life-saving vaccines and drugs?

“There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” This quote by Dr Jonas Salk is a well-known response to a question about who owned the polio vaccine which he had created. Dr Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine in 1955, which helped significantly reduce the epidemic cases of polio in the US from 45,000 in 1960 to 910 in 1962. What is intriguing about his work is the fact that he decided to not patent the vaccine, because he felt it was a product of society. Lawyers for the foundation had investigated the possibility of patenting the vaccine but did not pursue it, in part because of Salk’s reluctance. According to Forbes, Salk would have been richer by $7 billion if his vaccine were patented.

Patents on medicines are supposed to encourage research and development for new medicines. However, in recent years, patents have created a monopoly in the medical industry. They stop other scientists from producing the drug and mean that the patent-holding company can charge high prices without other companies undercutting them. The most effective and sustainable way to reduce the price of a drug is competition, but patents simply block other producers from entering the market.

Patents are by no means the only barrier to accessing life-saving medicines, but they can play a significant, or even determinant, role in that they grant the patent holder a monopoly on a drug for a number of years. The patent holder’s freedom to set prices has resulted in drugs being unaffordable for the majority of people living in developing countries, reducing the number of lives that could be saved.

jonas salk

Millions of people are, in effect, too poor to be treated; but, it is with the help of charities - such as the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation - that vaccines are being provided to people who cannot gain access. Surely if the vaccines were to not be patented more people will be immunised against life-threatening diseases and would not have to rely on charities to provide this to them?

Personally, I believe that the creation of vaccines should be done with the intention that personal gain is secondary to helping mankind. Although a patent might be needed to fund the lengthy and expensive drug development process necessary to produce a new life-enhancing - in some cases life-saving - medical therapy, it is important to not use a patent as a form of creating monopoly in the market.

What are your views on having vaccines and drugs patented? And should Governments and charities be doing more in areas of particular need? 

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