Commentary: Why eliminating drug patents is bad for global health and prosperity

The World Health Organization’s Executive Board Meeting is underway in Geneva as you read this message. For many decades, WHO technocrats have erroneously held the belief that eliminating drug patents will usher in a new era of global health and prosperity especially for the poor in the developing world.

By Franklin Cudjoe​

I have long argued (particularly in a 2007 WSJ article ‘Curing the Diseases of Poverty’) that unfortunately for us in poor nations, these health officials are missing the forest for the trees. Inadequate infrastructure, lack of medical professionals, under-funding and not price, are the chief obstacles blocking access of high-quality medicine to poor countries.

A lot still remains unchanged. Imported drugs often sit for months in most of Africa’s dirty, non-air-conditioned storage facilities — either losing quality or expiring before reaching patients. Hospitals lack doctors, nurses, equipment and sometimes even electricity to effectively administer available medication. Roads are often in disrepair, making it particularly difficult to reach rural populations, where disease rates are the highest.

Even when pharmaceutical companies offered drugs for free, as Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline have done in the past with drugs to treat trachoma and malaria, respectively, African countries still had severe problems in storing the drugs and distributing them. Poor roads, dilapidated health centers and inadequate medical personnel to administer the right prescriptions all stood in the way of helping patients.

And the problems are mounting.  Non-communicable diseases are on the rise just as there are emerging health threats such as Ebola and antibiotic resistance.  The WHO need to encourage investments in R&D into new drugs as a motivator to finding cures.

By most estimates, it costs Western pharmaceutical companies around $1bn to develop a new drug and bring it to the market. The risk of losing a product through compulsory licensing will only discourage investment in future research.

One would have thought that these grave matters would occupy the mind and time of WHO’s new Director-General, Tedros Adhanom when he promised sweeping reforms after taking up the role in 2017. Instead he has been fixated on non-issues such as appointing 14 Assistant Director Generals on all sorts of issues, and capping it with the appointment of former Zimbabwe strong man, Robert Mugabe as a goodwill ambassador! Of course, that appointment didn’t last.

Let’s hope the WHO will resolve after its Executive Board Meeting today, that compulsory license can’t cure Africa’s health problems. Instead, economic development remains the continent’s best hope for eradicating the diseases of poverty.

Franklin Cudjoe is IMANI Africa’s Founding President