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Intellectual Property in Healthcare: the Patient Perspective

This week, I was honoured to be asked to attend and present at the Bio Africa Congress in Durban.

The Durban ICC was abuzz with delegates, ministers, policy makers and those advocating for innovation in Africa.

The topic I was asked to discuss, was that of Intellectual Property in healthcare, which was a little bit daunting, as it's not something I often discuss. Realistically, patents and intellectual property are directly linked back to pricing - and pricing in the rare disease space is not often discussed openly and is very often the big, fat elephant in the room.

I listened intently to all the issues raised by colleagues and other speakers with regards to the process of evaluation and submission, compulsory vs voluntary licensing, and lots of legal jargon and interpretation that went over the top of my head. But what was evident, was that there is very little known or understood in the sector about the impact to patients on the ground. And whilst patents to protect IP are needed, the balance between profit and accessibility to all remains a fine line.

What is the context of IP for patients ?

We all recognize the incredible power of innovation in medicine. It's the driving force behind breakthroughs that transform and often save lives. However, this progress often comes at a price, one that directly affects patients like my son.

Intellectual property, primarily in the form of patents, plays a pivotal role in pharmaceuticals. It grants companies exclusive rights to their discoveries for a limited time, allowing them to recoup their research and development investments. This incentivizes the development of innovative drugs and therapies that have the potential to alleviate suffering and extend our lives.

Yet, this very system that fosters innovation can also create substantial challenges for patients:

1. Access to Affordable Medications:

High drug prices are a reality that many patients face daily. When pharmaceutical companies secure patents, they have a monopoly on these medications, which often leads to exorbitant prices. This makes it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for patients to afford the treatments they desperately need.

2. Health Inequities:

Intellectual property doesn't affect everyone equally. It deepens health disparities, as those with limited financial means are disproportionately impacted. Access to groundbreaking medicines should not be determined by one's socioeconomic status.

3. Delayed Access:

The time it takes for new drugs to become available to patients can be lengthy due to patent protections. Patients facing life-threatening conditions don't always have the luxury of waiting for years for a new medication to reach the market.

However, it's important to emphasize that intellectual property isn't solely a villain in this story. It's a necessary element in encouraging innovation. Pharmaceutical companies invest billions in research and development, and they need the promise of profit to justify these investments.

So, where do we find the balance?

First, we must explore alternative models that incentivize innovation without compromising access. Governments can play a more active role in price negotiations, and we can advocate for patent reforms that allow generic versions of drugs to enter the market sooner.

Additionally, increased transparency in drug pricing can empower patients to make informed choices about their healthcare. And let's not forget the power of patient advocacy. By raising our voices collectively, we can influence policies and industry practices.

In conclusion, the impact of intellectual property within pharmaceuticals is a complex issue, one that directly impacts patients like you and me. While innovation remains paramount, it's crucial that we work towards a future where breakthrough treatments are not only developed but also accessible to all who need them.

It's a challenge worth pursuing, and together, we can make progress toward a healthier and more equitable world.

" Owning the intellectual property is like owning land: you need to keep investing in it again and again to get a payoff; you can't simply sit back and collect rent." ~ Esther Dyson

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