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The ‘Access to Medicines’ Debate: Throwing Patients Without Cures Under the Proverbial Bus

November 15, 2012
The vast majority of the world’s patients remain completely forgotten in the ‘access to medicines’ debate.   Many fail to understand how that elimination will affect the development of the cures and treatments of tomorrow, especially for rare diseases, cancers, and other serious unmet medical conditions.

The Forgotten:

25 million Americans suffer from nearly 7000 rare diseases.  30 million European Union citizens suffer from between 6000 to 8000 rare diseases, 80% of which are of genetic origin and are often chronic or life-threatening.  While treatments with varying levels of effectiveness may exist for some of these rare diseases, the vast majority of these diseases lack effective treatments.

Despite remarkable advances in cancer treatment over the past several decades, it remains the case that each year 7.6 million people die from cancer worldwide.  In fact, the CDC estimates that more people die from cancer than from AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined. 

Clearly, there is a huge need for new cures and more effective treatments.

Cost of Developing New Cures and Treatments:

Cost estimates for bringing a successful drug to market start at $1.3 billion in 2005 dollars.  Correcting for current drug failure rates results in $4 billion per successful drug.  If you look at R&D spending from 12 leading pharmaceutical companies from 1997 to 2011 compared to drug launches you get $5.8 billion per drug.  Considering 90% of the costs of researching and developing a successful drug occurs in Phase III trials, industry clearly bears the largest cost and risk burden of researching, developing, and delivering new life-saving cures and treatments for patients around the world.

Even if we ignore the gains that patents bring humanity in terms of high-paying jobs and economic growth, we must not forget what hundreds of millions of patients around the world stand to gain from a robust patent regime -- the development of novel cures and treatments to save and improve their lives.

Patient vs. Patient Disguised as Industry vs. Poor:

Policy makers around the world are being asked to choose between poor patient populations without access to insurance or government help to pay for existing cures and treatments, on the one hand, and those patient populations suffering without cures or with inadequate treatments, on the other.  We've had that debate for years and it has gotten us nowhere.  Patients around the world are still suffering.  It is now time for a new conversation.  A conversation built on the premise that advancements in technology are central to solving humanity’s most pressing public health challenges.

Time for a Different Conversation:

Hundreds of millions of patients suffer without cures or adequate treatments due to the simple fact that they do not yet exist.  We need new technology that can serve global patient populations and operate in the infrastructures of both the developed and developing world.  Patents provide the best option to ensure these new cures and treatments are discovered, developed, approved by regulators, and delivered to patients around the world.  It’s time for a conversation that helps all patients, and not just those patients whose interests happen to align with the generic industry.