FTAA: Isn't Strong Patent Protection Essential to Ensure Development of New Medicines?
1 September 2003
Some argue that granting patents to protect pharmaceutical innovations is the best way to stimulate research and development (R&D) for new medicines and other health technologies. Patents are part of a complex system that can motivate investment in R&D under certain circumstances, such as when a profitable return on investment can be expected. But what about diseases like dengue, leishmaniasis, trachoma, or Chagas disease that affect people in the Americas with little or no purchasing power? American trypanosomiasis, or Chagas disease, kills an estimated 50,000 people annually on the American continent. An estimated 18 million people are living with the parasite in their blood and about 100 million people are at risk of infection in 21 Central and South American countries. This is about 25% of the population of Latin America. In Bolivia, for example, 3.5 million people - nearly half of the population - are at risk of contracting the disease, and Chagas is the fourth leading cause of death among people 15 to 75 years old. The disease is caused by Trypanosoma cruzi, a protozoan parasite transmitted to humans by blood-sucking insects that live in the walls and roofs of mud and straw housing commonly found in the poor rural areas and urban slums of Latin America. The disease can also be transmitted by blood transfusion and from mother to child during pregnancy. There is no treatment for the chronic stage of Chagas, which continues to disable and kill people at the peak of their lives. And in a 2001 survey of the leading pharmaceutical companies, only one out of 11 was developing a drug against Chagas disease, and not one had brought a Chagas drug to market in the past five years. Some FTAA negotiators want to strengthen intellectual property protection claiming that it will create incentives to develop new drugs. But there is ample evidence that without a lucrative market, stronger intellectual property protection will raise prices without stimulating needed research for diseases like Chagas. MSF currently runs three Chagas projects in Bolivia, Guatemala and Nicaragua.