NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


August 18, 2005

The spread of communicable diseases is a serious public health problem in poor countries. Opponents of drug patents argue that international protection of intellectual property makes drugs to treat such diseases too expensive to obtain, preventing patients in poor countries from accessing them.

This has led to calls for richer countries to limit patent protection to their home markets, and allow generic companies to manufacture patented medicines at existing facilities and sell them to poor countries at lower prices. However, patents in poor countries are not obstacles to acquiring essential medicines, says Brent Skinner of the Fraser Institute. The findings suggest that patents in poor countries could not possibly be barriers to access, because they simply don't exist.

The real solution to improving access is economic development through free trade, says Skinner:

  • In 2002, Asian, European and North American agricultural subsidies totaled US$310 billion, equal to the entire gross domestic product (GDP) of all the poorest countries in Africa.
  • If rich countries eliminated trade barriers against imports of African agricultural produce, they would help alleviate poverty -- which is the real barrier.
  • At the same time, consumers in wealthy countries would benefit from low prices for produce and taxpayers would save billions in subsidies.

Moreover, instead of advocating the theft of intellectual property, opponents should support charitable enterprises that subsidize medical care for poor people in the developing world and patent protection; otherwise, both poor and rich countries are at risk of losing health improving and efficiency benefits of pharmaceutical innovation, says Skinner.

Source: Brett J. Skinner, "Patents and Access to Drugs in Poor Countries," Fraser Forum, June 2005.


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