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Distortions in the patent market

Distortions in the patient market for new drugs mean that drugs are overwhelmingly being developed for people who will die anyway from conditions the drugs are designed to address. There are few incentives to provide preventative medicines and this distortion costs lives.

As the Economist states:

“The data paint a bleak picture. The economists find that pharmaceutical companies conduct 30 times more clinical trials for recurrent cancer drugs than for preventive drugs (the effect persists even after adjusting for market size). The authors also show that firms divert their R&D expenditures away from more curable, localised cancers and focus on incurable metastatic and recurrent cancers instead. The patent system encourages pharmaceuticals to pump out drugs aimed at those who have almost no chance of surviving the cancer anyway. This patent distortion costs the U.S. economy around $89 billion a year in lost lives.

A one-size-fits-all patent system does not cater to the specifics of innovation in the pharmaceutical industry. But tailoring patent law may encourage lobbying and corruption. A careful reform of the patent system is necessary: outright abolition of patents will not be enough to save cancer patients’ lives”.

The paper that provides the basis for these views is available gratis from the Journal of Economic Perspectives. As its authors Michele Bodrin and David Levine conclude:

The case against patents can be summarized briefly: there is no empirical evidence that they serve to increase innovation and productivity, unless productivity is identified with the number of patents awarded—which, as evidence shows, has no correlation with measured productivity. Both theory and evidence suggest that while patents can have a partial equilibrium effect of improving incentives to invent, the general equilibrium effect on innovation can be negative. A properly designed patent system might serve to increase innovation at a certain time and place. Unfortunately, the political economy of government-operated patent systems indicates that such systems are susceptible to pressures that cause the ill effects of patents to grow over time. Our preferred policy solution is to abolish patents entirely and to find other legislative instruments, less open to lobbying and rent seeking, to foster innovation when there is clear evidence that laissez-faire undersupplies it. However, if that policy change seems too large to swallow, we discuss in the conclusion a set of partial reforms that could be implemented.

3 comments to Distortions in the patent market

  • derrida derider

    Surely just a particular case the well known general incentive for firms to create palliative drugs for chronic conditions rather than single-dose cures or preventatives. It’s no coincidence we have good privately-developed HIV treatments that require a lifelong regime of 20 or 30 tablets a day – but we still don’t have an AIDS vaccine.

  • A case for government funded research?

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