7 October 2019

Undermining private sector innovation puts lives at risk

By Jasson Urbach

For the first time ever, September’s UN General Assembly Meeting included a high-level meeting on universal health coverage (UHC), a broad initiative to promote policies that lead to better health outcomes.

The unprecedented advances in human longevity of the past five decades have been spurred by an extraordinary amount of innovation in the medical technology field, which has given scientists access to powerful tools to develop new procedures and drugs. Since 2000, life expectancy has increased by 5.5 years and the vaccination rate for three major illnesses impacting children – diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis – has hit an all-time high (86%). But there is much work yet to do. More than half of the world’s population faces barriers to accessing critical health products and services, and non-infectious diseases such as obesity and heart disease are on the rise.

The world needs new approaches and solutions – and innovation and intellectual property (IP) must be central parts of those solutions. The private sector has long been the driver in creating products and services needed not just to fix today’s health emergencies but to engineer tomorrow’s cures.

Take malaria: pharmaceutical firm Novartis recently partnered with a group of academic and nonprofit organisations to develop a next-generation antimalarial drug while also strengthening clinical research capacities in Africa, the region that is most severely affected by this devastating disease.

Discussions at the high-level meeting also offered a stark reminder of how organisations such as the UN, the World Health Organisation, and other international organisations have sought to undermine innovation and exclude critical partners. Many of these initiatives have spawned controversial and non-evidence-based proposals that have been developed with little input from the organisations that actually develop and deliver these life-saving technologies. There have been repeated attempts to undermine innovation and attack IP rights, despite the fact that they are key ingredients in creating the very medicines that patients all over the world rely on.

These approaches are not only overly narrow, they are actively dangerous to long-term health outcomes. Better IP protection is associated with the faster development and deployment of new medicines. Moreover, incentivising new treatments and cures is likely to save money because proper treatment with medicine avoids more costly and difficult interventions such as surgery and hospitalisation.

A narrow focus on IP rights also fails to address the real barriers to access to medicines, including sustained investment in health systems, weak health care infrastructure, inadequate training for healthcare personnel, and ongoing trade barriers.

Narrowly focused proposals that ignore the realities of bringing innovative new drugs to market set back our efforts to address global challenges by undermining the private sector’s ability to innovate, thereby marginalising a source of resources and expertise that are fundamental to the fight for better health outcomes.

Achieving universal health coverage will require innovative new technologies and well-crafted, policies to solve tomorrow’s health challenges. With such a monumental challenge before us, we can’t afford bumper sticker policies that undermine concrete progress.

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Jasson Urbach is an economist and a director at the Free Market Foundation, an independent, South Africa-based think tank.