Pharmaceutical Companies

Indonesia has refused to share samples of the bird flu virus in Indonesia with the World Health Organization, because the WHO was providing the samples to commercial companies in the West.

Indonesia will not share bird flu samples with the World Health Organization until the U.N. body agrees to stop providing the strains to commercial vaccine makers without its permission, the health minister said Thursday.

The country hardest hit by bird flu is worried drug companies will use its virus to make vaccines that will ultimately be unaffordable to developing nations.

In today’s world, big pharmaceutical companies will develop vaccines and other medicines and will patent the technology, hold exclusive rights and a monopoly on the product. These commercial pharmaceutical  companies make billions every year, whilst holding the exclusive rights on these vaccines – vaccines which if shared could be mass produced around the world, potentially saving millions of lives.

Because of the intellectual property rights and market economics – the vaccines are generally provided to those companies which can afford them – the rich countries in the West. So poorer countries will be priced out of the market.

So these bird flu vaccines using virus samples provided by Indonesia will go towards developing vaccines will allow big companies in the West to develop vaccines which may never even reach the Indonesian people.

Intellectual Rights and Monopolies  

Economic theory suggests that for research and development to be cost-effective, there must be barriers such as patents, intellectual rights, monopoly rights. Indeed, why would I spend £100 million on developing a vaccine just to have a rival take my work (without any R&D costs of their own) and to produce and sell it at a lower price? 

So I guess we’re left with a bit of a moral dilemma. For a vaccine to be available to everyone regardless of where they live or how much money they have, the technologies and formulas for the vaccines must be open knowledge and available for free.

However if this were the case, there would be no vaccines. There would be no incentive for anyone to invest the money in research and development. There would be no profit to be gained in selling those vaccines; and certainly not enough to pay off those huge R&D costs.

So I suppose there are several questions: 

How can vaccines and medicines be made available to as many people as possible whilst still encouraging and maintaining research and development? 

Is it ethical for us to have these technologies which could save thousands from diseases or illnesses, but not to provide them on the basis that they can’t pay us for it?

Should vaccines be developed for the public good or for the pockets of shareholders in pharmaceutical companies?

Should the development of medical products be developed by governments for the public good?

5 thoughts on “Pharmaceutical Companies

  1. Human welfare should have predominant import. How you achieve that I don’t know.

    Of course patents don’t mean that you have to charge for something, it just means no one else can produce that thing. So I suppose it would be feasible for the companies concerned to show some morality and sell it cheap or give it away even, to developing countries.

    Maybe even laws could be enforced in the countries these companies are based in. I’m not sure what effect that would have on development though.

    Perhaps as long as the laws didn’t prohibit profit. Say didn’t apply till you reached a certain profit threshold.

    Of course one of the major problems are politicians are in the pockets of the hugely powerful multinationals at the top of this business.

  2. That’s certainly true and that’s what I believe – it’s just really difficult. Every drug or medicine that is developed can totally change somebody’s life but will be inaccessible to those people. It could be poor people living in the West, or less economically developed countries.

    Does that mean all vaccines and all medicines should be totally free to everyone or sold off cheap? If so, where on earth do we get the money to fund the research and development? Not only that; investors will not invest in companies without a good business plan and decent turnovers, and people who buy shares provide important capital to the business.

    It’s like we want the pharmaceuticals to produce vaccines and we want the vaccines for the people. We can have one, but we can’t seem to have both.

  3. I think the key to this question is "What is patentable?"  At the moment the patent laws enable big pharma to patent very minor changes to there drugs.  This clearly goes against the idea that patents should be granted only when the invention is original and non trivial (to an expert).

    To that end I think that taking a flu virus and generating a vaccine from it can in no way be considered an invention that is original and non trivial.  It’s just a process.  Maybe a skilled process that will take some trial and error, but not something worthy of a patent.

    Now big pharma can obviously produce and sell the vaccine that they develop, but it shouldn’t stop any generic pharma from doing the same thing.  And if one of the Indian generic pharamas want to flood the market with  ultra cheap versions, good for them.


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