The patent system for medicine should be reviewed, so that pharmaceutical companies cannot use loopholes anymore to keep their patent – and therefore their monopoly – on medicine forever, says Universities Allied for Essential Medicine, a student-led global movement for access to medicine, in this opinion article in the light of Access to Medicine week (first week of November.
The world faces a copious amount of scandals related to issues of health and justice as we often see them happen in other parts of the world. However, it was only last month that the Dutch newspaper NRC reported a case brewing closer to home, here in the Netherlands. The paper reported how the insurer firm Menzis sued the pharmaceutical company Astrozeneca for artificially fixing the price of a specific medicine through holding onto its patent rights. The patent of the medicine concerned here, Seroquel, expired in 2012, but the company was able to extend it. However, the extension was declared invalid 2 years later and Astrozeneca’s right to be sole producer of the medicine was taken away. Now, in 2018, Menzis claimed that the price-fixing of the drug caused them a financial loss of 4.2 million euros, after they calculated that the drug could have been produced up to 90% cheaper over this period of two years.
We are Universities Allied for Essential Medicine, a student-led global movement for access to medicine. We argue that the Menzis-Astrozeneca case should be put into a bigger context, like documentary programme Tegenlicht did in their Peperdure Pillen (Expensive Pills)-episode that broadcasted in the beginning of October. We contend that it is only one of many examples showing how the current patent system is lagging behind when it comes to medicine.
In general, patents grants researchers the exclusive right to be the sole producer of a newly developed product for a set amount of time, called the patent right. It thus creates a monopoly where the company can set a fixed price for the merchandise, since there is no market competition allowed. This ‘patent protection’ lasts for twenty years in most countries. Afterwards, other companies are able to modify the product and bring it to the market, breaking the monopoly.
Focusing on the pharmaceutical industry, the current patent system gives patent holders the possibility to extend an almost-expiring patent under two conditions. First, if the company can prove that the patented medicine has now been discovered to cure other conditions from the one it is already treating. Second, if minor adjustments are made to the chemical compositions of the drug and these alterations would improve the working mechanism of the medicine. This mechanism is called ‘evergreening’ and thus provides a way for pharmaceutical companies to extend a patent and hold on to their rights. Sadly, in reality pharmaceutical companies tend to use this mechanism as a loophole to hold their monopoly over a certain drug, with Astrozeneca being one of many.
In the present situation, medicines are considered to be no different from any other market product. Therefore, pharmaceutical companies currently are granted the same rights as corporations in different fields. Fact is that the patent right is initially intended as a device to encourage innovation and development of a society; innovation by its entrepreneurs. It is a recognition to innovators that their invention was a novel one and that it promotes socioeconomic development. However, treating medicines as any other product neglects its healing property. One would think that drugs are being invented with the intention to treat the sick. However, they are increasingly used by the pharmaceutical industry as a mean to make profit. We believe that it is the current patent system that creates this room for pharmaceutical companies to produce drugs with a business purpose via evergreening. While in some industries, extension of patent could be justified, it is not the case in the pharmaceutical business. We thus plead for a revision of the patent system, arguing that this would bring us one step closer to our ideal: A world where medicine are produced for what they are intended for. “Medicine for people, not for profit.” - UAEM
M. Dwistaraifa Rasendriya and Winne van Woerden on behalf of UAEM