However, is it conceivable that there are limits to such protection? If, for example, a pharmaceutical company developed a cure for AIDS, would it be appropriate to allow that company to control all rights to the product, charging prices prohibitive to poor countries that need it most and preventing the development of such drugs by others at a cheaper cost?
This argument has been ongoing for the last 20 years or so, as developing nations have argued back and forth with developed nations over access to, or the right to reproduce, life-saving medications. Developing countries feel such solutions to global problems, including HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, should be considered “public goods” that should be shared universally for the benefit of humanity.
This sentiment has, however, not gone down well with pharmaceutical companies, many of which are based in the United States. Medical breakthroughs are seen by them as an extension of great innovation that should be rewarded by allowing the free market to dictate the distribution of their products. These companies have sought to restrict developing countries’ manufacturing of generic versions of such drugs and selling them at a fraction of the cost. This, they argue, discourages innovation and competition among drug companies. Furthermore, not only does it cut into the companies’ market share in other countries, but the inevitable flow of generic drugs back into developed countries would damage its position in the domestic market.
To counter this argument, countries that lack critical access to these drugs, such as South Africa and Brazil, have fought tirelessly for the right to produce cheap generic drugs, only to be hit with lawsuits by U.S. pharmaceutical companies. Developing countries insist the virtual monopolization of advanced technology and innovation capacity by developed countries means the disparity between the two groups will only continue to grow.
In order to resolve the problem in a fair way, they insist, developing countries must be helped in closing the knowledge and technology gaps that currently exist between them and the developed world. They do not desire to undercut innovation and eschew intellectual property rights, but rather desire to become self-sufficient and able to create their own medications through innovation rather than depending on others for solutions.
This debate came to a head at the 1994 Uruguay Round of trade negotiations, hosted by the World Trade Organization. The resulting agreement known as TRIPS created regulations that would forbid states to violate patents and other intellectual property agreements. The treaty has been fiercely condemned by developing countries and numerous international organizations who insist it is further contributing to global inequality and the prevalence of fatal diseases.
There is no doubt that companies in the U.S. and other developed countries should be rewarded for innovation in order to maintain competition and medical advancement, yet it is blatantly apparent that some compromise must be met. Large sectors of society may oppose government intervention in private industry, yet having the potential to treat global pandemic diseases at the cost of corporate revenues may be an exception.
It is not as if the United States has not considered such a move before. In 2001, after the outbreak of anthrax in a suspected terrorist attack, the U.S. government came close to forcing drug company Bayer to allow other companies to produce the drug Cipro, a largely effective treatment for anthrax exposure. Perhaps if such “compulsory licenses” are permissible to protect national security, they could conceivably be used to preserve international security also.
Understandably, government intervention in big business is a sticky issue, as is extensive foreign aid, particularly in the current economic climate. However, when 34 million people worldwide suffer from the HIV virus, to actively seek the right to prevent crucial medication from reaching people seems deplorable.
Truly, intellectual property rights are important for many reasons beyond just this one, yet if the two worlds could form a compromise such as support for developing countries by closing the knowledge and technology gaps, countries might be able to support themselves without the need to undermine international regulations.