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Commentary

Patent Nonsense on avian flu
Alec van Gelder, The Boston Globe, 10-31-05

Gelder reminds us that the policymakers who feel the urge to do something about avian flu by threatening Roche’s patent for Tamiflu may be doing worst thing under the circumstances.

First, the raw ingredients for Tamiflu come from a Chinese herb which is in short supply. Unless production of the herb is increased, it will be impossible to increase production of Tamiflu. In this case, breaking the patent would have no impact on availability of the drug.
Second, Tamiflu is difficult to manufacture. Since Roche has developed the manufacturing expertise, it seems sensible to encourage Roche to increase production and/or to help other companies produce the drug under a voluntary license. Breaking the patent through a compulsory license would actively discourage Roche from either producing the drug or lending its expertise, which would be directly counterproductive.
Third, given that scientists have only a vague idea of what a human strain of H5N1 might look like, there is no certainty that Tamiflu will be effective. Even if Tamiflu does work on some people, widespread use would inevitably result in the development of resistant strains. So, either way, alternatives are clearly needed.
Yet if governments break the patent on Tamiflu, no pharmaceutical company is going to want to develop a new antiviral for fear that their expensively developed innovative medicine will simply be stolen without adequate compensation for the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars invested.

Whether or not generic manufacturers can produce Tamiflu in bulk—an open question at least for the time being—policymakers need to think about not just this crisis, but the next one, and the next one after that. Finding ways to honor patents and compensate patent holders will help ensure that we have medicines to confront those crises.



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