The myths about patents

© Mark Henley/Panos
Switzerland and other industrialised countries are keen to reinforce the protection of intellectual property concerning medicines at an international level.

The pharmaceuticals industry asserts that patents allow them to make new drugs profitable and to favour innovation. The reality is quite different.

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  • Myth No. 1: Patents help to fulfil the needs of public health

    The industry asserts that patents enable research and development to create drugs that respond to the needs of public health. In fact, the priorities with regard to research and development (R&D) of new medicines are essentially determined by the market, and not according to real public health needs. The current model, based on patents, validates de facto the domination of pharmaceutical multinationals. The poorer populations of the southern hemisphere, who do not represent a profitable market, are impacted by the absence of R&D for effective remedies for illnesses that affect them almost exclusively. And when the treatments exist already, these populations are faced with the exorbitant prices of new drugs.

  • Myth No. 2: Without patents, no incentive to innovate

    The pharmaceutical industry asserts that patents favour innovation. Their logic is that: without the right to patent inventions, there would be no incentive to innovate in the research and development of new medicines. In fact, in spite of a constant increase in the number of patents, the number of new molecules approved by the regulatory agencies is only stable or even declining, while R&D expenditure is increasing. Worse still, several independent studies have shown that two-thirds of new medicines marketed each year do not show significant therapeutic progress, and that one drug out of six is actually less effective than those already on the market. To maintain profits and increase market share, pharmas do not hesitate to multiply patents for the same substance, thus prolonging the period of exclusivity of a product and delaying the production of generic drugs. This practice – known as “evergreening” – is part of the business model of this sector. It threatens the access of populations to essential medicines, especially in emergent countries, and hinders the discovery of new pharmaceutical substances.

  • Myth No. 3: Patents are essential in maintaining a balance between private and public interests

    Originally, patents were established to guarantee a balance between private interests (rewarding an inventor by granting him/her exclusive marketing rights to recover his/her investment) and public interests (where society benefits from progress and knowledge is propagated). Harmonised from 1995 over a duration of 20 years by the regulations of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), patents are supposed to stimulate innovation. However, several decades later, there is still no empirical proof that this is the case. Worse still, patents have become efficient mechanisms for protecting investments, are designed to exclude the competition, and to raise share prices, rather than to benefit society. The private–public balance is clearly broken.