So it should be welcome news that the United Nations is convening a panel to examine how to increase the worldwide availability of life-saving medicines. Unfortunately, by the looks of the panel's agenda, it's likely to be a lost opportunity.
That's because the group, the United Nations High Level Panel on Access to Medicines, has been tasked with focusing on what is identified as a "misalignment" between the interests of innovators and those who benefit from their products.
In particular, the panel is looking solely at intellectual property protections in its effort to expand access to life-saving drugs.
The panel's mandate is not only simplistic; it's dangerous. The scientific breakthroughs that conquer diseases and save lives come only as a result of tremendous investment in research and development. Patent laws ensure that success comes with a return on investment that justifies the up-front risk. Gut those protections, and innovations will not take place.
Consider just how risky and costly it is to create new medicines. On average, it takes over a dozen years and $2.6 billion to develop a single path-breaking new drug. We in the public only see the triumphs, but this journey is fraught with failure: Of thousands of potential discoveries, only a handful makes it to clinical trials.
That's why intellectual property protections are so crucial. They amount to sufficient assurance to inventors and their financial supporters that they will have a chance to make a return on their successful innovations.
If any of us were asked to name those in the first rank of leaders in the cause of advancing human rights, Abraham Lincoln would be second to none. Less known was that he also had a clear vision of the relationship of patent rights to innovation.
He felt so strongly about the patent system's role in encouraging innovation that he delivered a lecture on the subject in February 1859. In it, he observed: "Before [patents] any man [could] instantly use what another had invented; so that the inventor had no special advantage from his own invention. The patent system changed this; secured to the inventor, for a limited time, the exclusive use of his invention; and thereby added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things."
Over 150 years later, Lincoln's words still ring true.
Across the world, patent laws have fostered the environment in which companies have been able to make great strides in treating diseases. In Africa antimalarial breakthroughs have helped save over a million young lives, and an effective vaccine has reduced fatalities from measles by 91 percent.
Oddly unmentioned in the panel's mission statement are the real roadblocks to access to medicine. Impoverished nations lack the infrastructure, delivery avenues, and even storage facilities to administer and stockpile medicines.
Abraham Lincoln was right to liken patent laws to a fuel that triggers the fire of genius. Both are necessary to meet global health emergencies and improve access to life-saving drugs. The UN panel needs to avoid running the risk of draining the fuel and snuffing out the fire.
Alan W. Wolff is senior counsel with Dentons and chairman of the National Foreign Trade Council.