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U.N.'s errant prescription for drug access

| Monday, Feb. 27, 2017, 9:00 p.m.

What's the best way to improve health care for billions of people in the developing world? If you answered, “Attack health care firms,” you qualify for a job with the United Nations.

You'd also be dead wrong.

The U.N. recently released a plan to severely weaken patent protections and other forms of intellectual property (IP). U.N. officials believe that this will bring down the price of medicine in the developing world, thereby improving people's access to drugs.

Their recommendations would do the exact opposite. Dissolving IP protections would disincentivize drug research and slow the discovery of new treatments. Patients in both the developing and developed worlds would be worse off.

Drug development is an enormously expensive endeavor. It costs, on average, $2.6 billion to bring a new medicine to market. Just one out of every 5,000 promising compounds makes it from the lab through clinical trials to the pharmacy shelf. And just two out of every 10 approved drugs ever turn a profit.

IP rights are what make risky drug research a worthwhile bet for investors. By temporarily preventing the production of generics and creating a market monopoly, they ensure that the original innovator has a chance to profit from successful new products.

America has the strongest IP protections in the world, and they've driven a spectacular rate of innovation.

We've created more than 500 new medications in the past 15 years alone. That's more than the rest of the world combined. And we account for 70 percent of the 7,000 new drugs now under development globally. We're also home to 12 of the top 20 medical-device companies in the world.

These research efforts are aimed at the most devastating diseases. Today, American scientists are working on 74 new asthma medicines, 92 new arthritis treatments, and 93 therapies for Alzheimer's disease. They're also developing over 800 cancer treatments.

These products lead to longer lives for people all over the world. Consider HIV/AIDS: Back in the 1980s, a diagnosis was a death sentence. Today, antiretroviral cocktails keep patients living for decades. There's no way firms would have plowed billions into researching and developing these therapies without strong patent protections.

Patent protections are not the reason poor patients in the developing world can't access breakthrough medications. Among the 375 drugs the World Health Organization has deemed essential, just 25 are still patented.

Cost isn't a problem either. Poor patients pay just 6 percent of the U.S. retail price for 350 off-patent drugs.

The U.N.'s war on IP rights ignores the real barrier to drug access: insufficient medical infrastructure.

For instance, many developing countries suffer from a severe shortage of health care professionals, particularly in rural areas. In Nicaragua, 50 percent of health personnel work in the country's capital, yet only 20 percent of the country's population lives there.

The U.N. needs to ditch its fixation on intellectual property rights and instead focus on the real problems of the developing world. Undermining IP protections would deter drug development and ultimately deprive needy patients of lifesaving treatments.

Peter J. Pitts, a former FDA associate commissioner, is president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest.

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