Is Disease Eradication Possible In The Age Of Patents?

After reading about attempts to eradicate Polio in Uttar Pradesh, followed by several articles addressing the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), I was curious: Did the United States use a patented vaccine in its polio elimination campaign? The short answer is no.

This question was prompted by (what I guessed to be) an analogues situation in economic development. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, many economists promoted market liberalization as a pathway for economic development. Many rationalized this practice by pointing to the current economic policies of the United States, and its economic growth. Essentially, the prescription to developing countries was – make your economic policy reflect that of the United States, and economic growth will follow. However, this overlooked, or intentionally ignored, the fact that the United States utilized intense protectionist policies in its infancy, incubating domestic industries and enterprises before ever exposing them to intense international competition. There was no empirical evidence that market liberalization could promote economic development.

While disease reduction is a noble cause, I question if we are asking middle and low-income countries to execute an impossible task. To some extent, the current dialogue highlights the United States and says to developing countries, “if they could do it, so can you” – despite the fact that the rules of the game have changed drastically.

The March of Dimes “committed to give the formulation and production processes for the vaccine to several pharmaceutical companies for free,” ensuring that the polio vaccine could be produced cheaply, and in mass. Interestingly, patent law existed, but lawyers did not believe they could patent the Salk vaccine. Today, most vaccines are patented and expensive. ” In this context, one could argue that the recent decisions and threats by India and Brazil, respectively, are only attempts to recreate the same environment in which vaccination campaigns have been financially and operationally feasible in the past.

With patent law intensifying since the American polio eradication campaign, the United States Government has adapted. “The U.S. government is now the primary applicant for vaccine-related patents, followed by GlaxoSmithKline and a number of other corporations.” With the government as a competitor in drug development, it is possible that the public sector will develop new remedies funded by taxpayer dollars, enabling inexpensive distribution. However, this still leaves low and moderate-income countries out of the loop. Low-income countries have small tax and limited bandwidth to support such research – leaving them tied to patented drugs, and the support of NGOs.

To date, the only globally eradicated disease is smallpox. The original vaccine for smallpox did not have a patent. Without a significant shift in patent policy, utilizing vaccines to eradicate diseases appears to be an impossible task for low and middle-income governments to undertake on their own.

Both quotes from:


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