A Breakthrough Opportunity for Global Health

NEW YORK – Every year, millions of people die from preventable and treatable diseases, especially in poor countries. In many cases, lifesaving medicines can be cheaply mass-produced, but are sold at prices that block access to those who need them. And many die simply because there are no cures or vaccines, because so little of the world’s valuable research talent and limited resources is devoted to addressing the diseases of the poor.

This state of affairs represents a failure of economics and law that urgently needs to be corrected. The good news is that there are now opportunities for change, most promisingly through an international effort headed by the World Health Organization that would begin to fix the broken intellectual-property regime that is holding back the development and availability of cheap drugs.

Two main problems limit the availability of medicines today. One is that they are very costly; or, more accurately, the price charged for them is very high, though the cost of producing them is but a fraction of that amount. Second, drug development is geared toward maximizing profit, not social benefit, which skews efforts directed at the creation of medicines that are essential to human welfare. Because the poor have so little money to spend, drug companies, under current arrangements, have little incentive to do research on the diseases that afflict them.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Drug companies argue that high prices are necessary to fund research and development. But, in the United States, it is actually the government that finances most health-related research and development – directly, through public support (National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation), and indirectly, through public purchases of medicine, both in the Medicare and Medicaid programs. Even the part that is not government-financed is not a conventional market; most individuals’ purchases of prescription medicines are covered by insurance.