Sofosbuvir, a medication intended to treat Hepatitis C, was recently denied a patent in India by means of a legal loophole. This means that the medication can be reproduced by third party companies, who can then sell it for a much more affordable price, making it available to thousands more people.
Hepatitis C affects approximately 170 million people worldwide. 18 million of those people live in India. It primarily impacts the liver, and while it sometimes causes no symptoms, especially early in life, it can lead to serious long-term complications.
In India, the patent application was denied to a corporation called Gilead on the grounds that the treatment was not sufficiently innovative to justify a new patent. Gilead has signed voluntary license agreements with several companies for production of the drug, but there are no legal boundaries to prevent any third-party companies from creating generic versions of it. These third-party companies can subsequently make the treatment available to thousands at a fraction of the previous cost.
Sofosbuvir is available in the U.S. and due to licensing is sold by Gilead for $84,000 per treatment course. It’s an exorbitant price even for those who are fairly well off. For someone living with Hepatitis C in India, an overwhelmingly poor country, this price would likely make the treatment completely unattainable. The situation seems particularly cruel when you consider that Sofosbuvir can be produced for just $101 per treatment course.
That’s $83,899 which, in the case of many pharmaceutical companies, more often goes back into marketing and advertising efforts than it does into research and development of new treatments.
It’s a disgustingly transparent attempt to squeeze as much money out of the sick as possible.
The patent problem isn’t unique to India—the issue of patents on medical treatments and procedures has become controversial in the United States as well, a nation with a patent process similar to India’s.
In western society, we place a great deal of value in the accomplishments of individuals and giving credit where credit is due. However, in light of the fact that patents on medical procedures and treatments can easily be manipulated solely for the purpose of monetary gain, it’s time to consider banning patents on such inventions, or at the very least, redesigning a patent process for that specific field which is tailored to citizens who are in dire need of affordable medical treatment.
The purpose of patents is not only to give credit to inventors but also to promote private investment into research and development. One of the strongest arguments against removing the patent system is that without it, there will be no incentive for the development of new treatments.
In recent years, some American economists have suggested a solution to the patent controversy known as the prize system. A system of providing monetary “prizes” to inventors of medical treatments would retain the material incentive for creating new products while still allowing for the distribution of medication at more reasonable prices. In the proposed system, the U.S. government would pay for the rights to FDA-approved treatments, then place those rights into the public domain.
The prize system isn’t flawless, however. The main argument against it is that it’s dangerous to the free market to centralize control of the medical industry and allow the government the power to decide which medications it wants to fund and which it doesn’t—a recipe for corruption.
In response, some economists have argued that the “prize” should involve bidding by the government as well as interested private parties. I’m more in favor of this proposal. While I understand the importance of private sector involvement, I can’t reconcile the untreated illness of thousands for the sake of a private corporation’s gain.
To further prevent the manipulation of the system, I would suggest the evaluation of the candidates for a “prize” by third-party impartial physicians or medical experts who would have the expertise necessary to determine exactly how valuable a particular treatment is.
A system like this one, implemented in India or other countries, would benefit thousands who are dependent on expensive medication for their health or even their daily survival. In the meantime, it’s heartening to know that countless Hepatitis C patients in India now have access to the treatment they need.