How pharmaceutical patent rights affect access to medicine in poor nations

A new article published in Health Affairs studies the “relationship between patents and access to essential medicines.” Cambridge researcher Amir Attaran found that patenting is rare for the vast majority of products on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) list of essential medicines.

Only seventeen essential medicines are patentable, although usually not actually patented, so that overall patent incidence is low (1.4 percent) and concentrated in larger markets.

Attaran argues that his results show that the policy dialogue relating to patent protection in developing countries is often based on mistaken premises.

[P]atents very infrequently block access to generic versions of essential medicines. For the sixty-five countries we studied, where the majority of people in the developing world live, patents and patent applications exist for essential medicines 1.4 percent of the time (300 instances out of 20,735 combinations of essential medicines and countries). However, this overstates the frequency with which patents totally block access to generics, because it is only a subset of patents that are absolutely fundamental and that generic manufacturers can never circumvent (normally, a patent on the active pharmaceutical ingredient, and for medicines containing two such ingredients, a patent on their co-formulation). By this standard, there are 186 fundamental patents or applications, or 0.9 percent of the total. Thus, there are no patent barriers to accessing generic essential medicines in 98.6 percent of the cases we studied, which we stress is an overall probability and not prognostic in any specific case.

Update from Amir Attaran: I think you must also mention that with only 17 patents at issue, the pharma industry lacks vision on how to remove the apprehension that patents have negatively affected and are negatively affecting patients’ ability to access medicines in these few cases. Most of the patented meds are for AIDS, and so they attract disproportionate attention.