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April 25, 2005

Speaker Says Poor Nations Need Low-Cost Drugs


Sara Frechette
William "Terry" Fisher speaks at the Connecticut Law Review Symposium held April 15. His topic was drug patent reformand global health care.

Changes in U.S. law could help fight the health crisis in developing nations, said William “Terry” Fisher, an author and professor at Harvard Law School who delivered a lecture at the UConn School of Law on April 15.

Fisher’s talk, “Intellectual Property and Drugs: How Reform of the Patent System Could Alleviate the Global Health Crisis,” was part of the Day, Berry & Howard Visiting Scholar program and was hosted by the Connecticut Law Review.

Fisher discussed the dramatic health care challenges faced in the developing world, citing “extraordinary imbalance globally in life expectancy” between industrialized nations such as Japan – with the world’s highest, at more than 75 years – and Third World countries such as Sierra Leone, with the lowest, at less than 30 years.

He noted that of the nine million deaths worldwide per year due to diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, 98 percent will occur in developing nations. The root causes of this, he said, include inadequate health care systems, poverty, warm climates, the fact that some treatment regimens are too complex to be administered, and lack of access to drugs.

Describing the health crisis as “the equivalent of a largely preventable holocaust,” Fisher said that the goal of the industrialized world must be to increase the distribution of drugs and vaccines to developing nations, foster research and development that benefit these parts of the world, and stimulate more drug manufacturing in other nations.

According to Fisher, the U.S. government provides approximately $27 billion per year in research and development funding for pharmaceutical companies, but also provides the equivalent of another $27 billion through the patent system, which protects pharmaceutical companies from competition once they have gone through the slow and costly process of producing a drug.

He suggested that changes to patent law could generate a system that would force pharmaceutical companies to provide low-cost drugs for poorer nations.

He said many pharmaceutical companies practice “bio-prospecting,” which he defined as companies traveling to the developing world to learn about local remedies for illnesses using, for example, indigenous plants.

Companies then use this insight to develop new drugs based on their findings. Fisher suggested that patent law could be altered to allow developing nations to share in whatever profits are generated for the pharmaceutical companies once these drugs are on the market.

Fisher cautioned, however, that “we don’t want to adopt reforms that kill the goose that’s laying the golden egg.”

He has crafted his recommendations to pair reforms that would cause a financial drain on pharmaceutical companies with those that will offer a benefit, such as a reward system for companies that provide drugs to nations in need.

He said that, ultimately, the most effective solution lies in enacting a combination of remedies that include direct gifts to other nations from governments in developed countries and international aid organizations; drug price controls; regulation of pharmaceutical companies’ conduct; and changes in the patent system to stimulate the development of drugs and then release them to the public at large.