Life was changing for the pharmaceutical industry even before the attacks on America. It had been a year of public relations embarrassments, including a lawsuit filed by 39 drug companies against South Africa over patent infringement legislation approved in a country where at least 4.7 million people are HIV positive. The suit was later withdrawn, but critics said the industry offered no social, political or ethical leadership in a global marketplace.
Then came Sept. 11. After the hijack terror followed bioterror anthrax. Faced with the potential of a widespread public health emergency, U.S. officials scrambled to stockpile Cipro, Bayer AG's patented antibiotic used to treat anthrax. Suddenly the U.S. and Canada long tough on patent protection found themselves feeling like South Africa, Brazil and other developing nations desperate for needed medicines at low cost. When politicians mentioned overriding patents, Bayer struck discount-purchase deals. Bayer also donated 4 million tablets to the U.S. for emergency and postal workers. Other companies, too, are eager to promote their own low-cost anthrax treatments.
A ripple effect of the U.S. anthrax experience spread to Doha, Qatar, where the WTO agreed to a more flexible formula for providing discounted drugs to developing nations dealing with major disease outbreaks. Big drugmakers are still playing hardball, though. Adamant about safeguarding the patent profits that fund drug development, the companies work hard at extending the life of their patents to keep them out of the hands of generic drug makers.
As bioterror anxiety runs high, rich countries seem less protective of patents on vital medicines.
Will it last?
No. The industry will keep defending its turf since drug development is long, costly and uncertain. After Doha, patent-skirters must still meet WTO rules.