The pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical industries have jealously guarded their intellectual property for years. Companies routinely use patents to prevent competitors from making generic versions of their drugs. When pipelines have weakened, companies have developed new formulations or delivery methods to extend patent protection for their established drugs. The economic crisis has only sharpened this reflex.
That’s why news from Ecuador made me do a doubletake.
Last Monday, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa gave local officials the power to issue compulsory licenses that enable Ecuadorean companies to bypass patents and produce inexpensive versions of various drugs. Correa’s decree did not specify which, or even how many, drugs’ patents could be bypassed. The licenses, issued according to the World Trade Organization’s rules, are intended to expand access to medications and improve public health.
To my surprise, Pfizer (New York), GlaxoSmithKline (GSK, London), Bayer (Leverkusen, Germany), and others reacted to the announcement with equanimity. In a statement, these and several other companies said, “We accept the democratic decision … to use this extraordinary legal measure, observing the rights and responsibilities” laid out in international law. “No legal right of any kind can take precedence over the interests of public health,” they added.
This reaction is 180° from the opposition that Brazil and Thailand faced in 2007 when they used this tactic. The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations criticized Brazil for not collaborating with Merck (Whitehouse Station, NJ) before its government issued a compulsory license for the AIDS treatment Efavirenz. After Thailand issued a compulsory license for Abbott’s (Abbott Park, IL) Kaletra, the company said it would no longer register new drugs for sale in that country.
I could not find statements responding to Correa’s directive on these companies’ websites and I don’t know why they reacted differently than Merck and Abbott did in 2007. Maybe Pfizer, GSK, Bayer, and the other companies coordinated their response to improve their public images. Or maybe their statement reflects a changed attitude about the limits and ethics of patent protection.
Whatever their motivation, these companies’ endorsement of compulsory licenses will likely set a precedent that makes other drugmakers more willing to accept this legal measure. Compulsory licensing is sanctioned and regulated by international governments and trade organizations. I think it can be a valuable tool that saves patients’ lives, and I’m heartened by the thought that Big Pharma might be more tolerant of this measure in the future.