Myth: Weak patents in developing countries means low investment in tropical diseases

There is little investment in tropical diseases because there is weak patent protection in the countries most affected by these illnesses. After 2006, when all countries will have implemented TRIPS (international trade rules that mandate minimum 20-year patents), drug development will increase in developing countries.

Drug development for neglected diseases will not automatically increase, no matter how strong the level of intellectual property protection, because private R&D is driven primarily by market potential. People who suffer from diseases like malaria, sleeping sickness and leishmaniasis, with or without strong patent protection in their countries, will not have the necessary purchasing power to constitute a market attractive to drug developers.

Intellectual property rights, including patents, are part of a complex legal and economic system that can motivate investment in R&D under certain circumstances. Protection of intellectual property in a country has historically followed industrial development. It is doubtful that the reverse will also occur – that industrial development will follow strong intellectual property protection. In fact, patents may actually hamper medical research activities in developing countries. Patents are often owned by private companies or research institutions, and, during the period of protection, put limits on research knowledge. Molecules that could be promising for the treatment of neglected diseases are consequently not easily accessible for research.

In addition, most developing countries are unlikely to significantly improve their R&D capacity solely on the basis of an expanded and stronger intellectual property rights regime. Even in industrialized countries, innovation is assisted by other incentives, including substantial government spending. Without significant government research spending, stronger patent protection may lead to higher prices without stimulating research.

Since the 1970s, some industries in developing countries have been developing new production processes through reverse engineering for medicines still under patent elsewhere in the world. This generic production has contributed to both industrial development and greater access to medicines through lower prices. With stronger patent protection, these countries will not be able to continue this practice.