Group: Patents making drugs too expensive

GENEVA (AP) - Poor countries are granting more patents on medicines than necessary, making crucial drugs far too costly for them, the humanitarian group Médecins Sans Frontières said in a report Thursday. Many developing countries do not have the scientific expertise to decide whether a patent is justified, so they grant protection even when it is not required under international law, the report said. "It is becoming increasingly clear that drugs that are under patent are a barrier to access because this leads to higher prices," said Ellen 't Hoen, of the group's Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines. "Drug patents can and should be challenged." Inventors must apply for patents individually in each country where they want to obtain protection. Without a patent, there would be nothing to stop a generic manufacturer from copying the process used to make a drug. Pascale Boulez, one of the authors of the report, said that poor nations simply grant patents without carrying out investigations. Many West African countries granted patent protection to GlaxoSmithKline's AIDS treatment Combivir within a couple of years of its 1997 filing, while the European Union is still studying the application. "Patents were not created to enrich inventors, but to benefit society as a whole by promoting innovation," the report said. Harvey Bale, director-general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Associations, said patents are necessary even in developing countries to promote research and development of new drugs. "Why should you throw out the patent system? That is a very short-term, static view which is very typical of some of the activists," he said. "That would be a respectable view if you were at the end of the history of drug development. But I don't know a single therapy where we are at the end of history." He said patent holders can often supply the drugs to poor nations more cheaply than generic producers because they have larger production and distribution systems and can make profits by selling the same drugs at higher prices elsewhere.