When discussing the patent system, one area that is often singled out is pharmaceutical patents -- with even those who are against other types of patents often believing that pharmaceutical patents may represent a special case. However, there's increasing evidence that there are tremendous downsides to pharmaceutical patents in that it often puts the incentives in the wrong place -- more towards "me too" and leisure drugs, rather than actually building up pharmaceuticals that help people. On top of that, there's plenty of evidence that thriving pharmaceutical industries (including new drug discovery) can occur even in the absence of patents. Slashdot today points us to yet another example of the screwed up incentives created by patents in the pharmaceutical industry. It turns out that Indonesia has stopped supplying samples of avian flu to the World Health Organization for the creation of vaccines. Instead, they are working out a commercial deal with a single American vaccine company. By providing it to a single company, they are limiting the likelihood of cheaper, more effective vaccines. Yet, why are they doing this? It's all about the patents and the money. They're worried that if they just give out the samples, anyone might be able to patent a vaccine... without compensating Indonesia, even if it supplied the samples. This is clearly an unintended consequence of a system of poorly designed incentives. It certainly doesn't make anyone (or science) better off in the long run.
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