After years of campaigning, activists have narrowed the debate about health care in poor countries to a single premise: Patents drive up the cost of medicines, so patents are bad.
As part of this campaign, activist groups such as Medecins sans Frontieres and Knowledge Ecology International regularly cite the fact that few drugs have been developed for several tropical diseases. On the basis of this, they claim that markets are incapable of providing drugs that people need.
It takes quite a distortion of the evidence to support this claim. Nevertheless, the NGOs argue that the current market-based system through which drugs are developed needs to be dismantled, and replaced with a system where government experts decide what needs to be researched. They would then allocate 'prizes' to drug developers who are able to develop efficacious medicines that meet the terms of the prize.
Without breaking into much of a sweat, I can think of three immediate objections:
- This would result in the immediate politicisation of drug research, with research being allocated to political rather than clinical priorities. I can't see how this would be an improvement on the current system.
- the value of the prize will never be a true reflection of the market value of the invention, no matter how clever the prize awarding committee. If the prize is too low, companies will be reluctant to compete for future prizes, leading to fewer new drugs. If the prize is too high, the new system will squander taxpayers' money and divert effort from other areas of research.
- Prizes were widely used in the Soviet Union to stimulate research. Not only did the USSR produce very few novel drugs, but many scientists risked life and limb trying to escape to the West where their talents would be properly rewarded.
Can any readers think of any more objections, or even reasons why I'm wrong? The comments are open.