Inventing Solutions to Global Disease & Poverty

Guest Post By David Kappos and Quentin Palfrey  

In April 2013, the Obama Administration announced the first wave of winners of the Patents for Humanity competition, an innovative program to provide recognition and incentives to companies that use their patented technologies to help the world’s poorest people. The winners and honorable mentions were diverse and impressive. For example, Gilead Science was recognized for making HIV/AIDS drugs available through innovative licensing mechanisms.The University of California at Berkeley developed lower cost ways to product anti-malarial compounds. DuPont developed an improved strain of sorghum that was fortified with more protein and vitamins for use among starving populations in sub-Saharan Africa. Procter & Gamble removed impurities from drinking water. Nokeros delivered solar light bulbs and phone chargers for off-grid villages through local entrepreneurs. In addition to well-deserved recognition for these and other laudable initiatives, companies recognized through the Patents for Humanity program received something else: a voucher to accelerate applications in one of several processes at the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO).

This February, the White House reaffirmed its commitment to the Patents for Humanity program, removing it from pilot status and making it an annual program. The second wave of applications is due at the end of this month and we are sure to see another impressive group of innovators seeking recognition. But the program could be even more impactful in incentivizing humanitarian uses of patented technology if awardees were free to transfer their acceleration vouchers to other companies. This would increase the incentive effect of the program by making the vouchers more valuable. That is the idea behind the Patents for Humanity Program Improvement Act, introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senator Chris Coons. The Obama Administration has supported this common sense, cost-neutral measure to strengthen an innovative program.

The challenges facing the world’s poor are daunting. One in eight people on the planet suffers from malnutrition. AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria kill more than 6 million people a year. More than a billion lack access to safe drinking water. To overcome these challenges will require a sustained commitment, as well as many new ideas and inventions. The global fight against disease, hunger, poor sanitation, and other development challenges is urgent and bipartisan, and we hope Congress will act without delay to pass Senator Leahy’s and Senator Coons’ bill.

David Kappos is the former Under Secretary of Commerce and Director of the United States Patent & Trademark Office. Quentin Palfrey, a special counsel at the law firm WilmerHale, is a former Senior Advisor for Jobs & Competitiveness in the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy.

5 thoughts on “Inventing Solutions to Global Disease & Poverty

  1. 2

    The literature and decades of experience shows that “prizes” are inferior to normal market forces in promoting the development of such medicines. For example, while a prize system might correct for market failure (e.g. Ebola research) it suffers from other problems such as insufficient alignment of incentives and the biases of judges.

    The key to harnessing market forces in such R&D is a good patent system.

    Unfortunately, since Mr. Kappos left the USPTO, it is increasing difficult to get patent protection for medical technologies. The USPTO interpretation of Mayo and Myriad make is nearly impossible to get a patent on a new diagnostic marker for detecting Ebola unless it is tied to a specific machine. Likewise, vaccine research starts with the identification of appropriate antigens and epitopes, but the PTO declares them an unpatentable “product of nature.”

    1. 2.1

      At first I was going make some stupid sarcastic remark, like “of course an ebola diagnostic marker is a product of nature, I just went out in the woods and found one under a pawpaw tree”. Hmmm, actually my pawpaw tree is a patented variety, Shenandoah, developed by Neal Peterson. To get that to NOT be a product of nature, he did something like raise 500 seedlings into trees, and choose the one tree as the very best. So maybe one of you clever patent folks can design a law sorta like the plant patent to get around this product of nature business. Surely a tree is product of nature … but the usefulness of having someone pick thru all the not-so-good ones and graft you a nice guaranteed tasty one is worth the buck or two extra you pay. The same thing might be said for an ebola diagnostic tool. I think you could get a medical consensus that it would be worth maybe even $10, at least in Dallas or Liberia right now.

      1. 2.1.1

        plant patent law – like design patent law – is an odd offshoot and like it or not has incongruities with much utility patent law jurisprudence

      2. 2.1.2

        The proposed law has good intentions, but I question its effectiveness if there are much bigger barriers in the system. Congress should focus on fixing those barriers.

  2. 1

    Boy, David … sure miss having you at the Patent Office.

    Hear they’ve got an opening you’d be just perfect for.

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