In Defense of Pharma: The Importance of Patents

Many in India have called for Pharma to “withdraw all patent applications” (Ecks 170).

For the longest time, I shared anti-patent sentiments, coming from a liberterian perspective. My initial reasoning: patents create monopolies, prevent competition and involve market regulation. Monopolies and regulation are counter free market principles, hence patents are undesirable. Indeed, it is interesting that arguments against patent laws can be made by both sides of  socialist vs. capitalist debate.

However, I have since changed my views, after a debate with a young doctor who argued patents are critical to the innovation of new, often lifesaving drugs and necessary for drug companies to have an incentive to invest in research (similar arguments are mentioned but inadequately developed in Ecks 173 & 178).

The logic of drug companies is actually quite sound. For one, assuming they are not Santa, why would one invest millions of dollars of their own money into developing a drug, if they knew that once produced, the drug can be replicated by others who did not invest those millions in research? Indeed, if minimizing costs, it seems prudential in a no-patent-market to wait for a pharmaceutical competitor to research and create a drug, and to then reverse engineer its active ingredients and sell generic drugs at a more competitive price. This leads to a “tragedy of the commons”-like scenario where it is in every pharmaceutical company’s best interests to save money on research and not develop new drugs themselves, but also in all the companies’, as well as society’s, best interests for new drugs to be developed. Patents therefore give companies incentives to develop cutting-edge drugs while providing them a reasonable expectation to recoup their costs.

Millions may die when a life-saving drug is unaffordable. Many more millions would die if the life-saving drugs are not even created.

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