Back in June last year, Techdirt reported on the warning from the World Health Organization's Director-General that we risked entering a "post-antibiotic era". That was in part because the current patent system was not encouraging the right kind of research by pharma companies in order to develop the new antibiotics that we desperately need.
Stephan Kinsella points out that the World Economic Forum's 8th Global Risks Report (pdf), based on a survey of over 1,000 experts worldwide, has singled out precisely the same issue as one of the most serious facing humanity today:
Arguably, one of the most effective and common means to protect human life -- the use of antibacterial and antimicrobial compounds (antibiotics) -- may no longer be readily available in the near future. Every dose of antibiotics creates selective evolutionary pressures, as some bacteria survive to pass on the genetic mutations that enabled them to do so. Until now, new antibiotics have been developed to replace older, increasingly ineffective ones. However, human innovation may no longer be outpacing bacterial mutation. None of the new drugs currently in the development pipeline may be effective against certain new mutations of killer bacteria that could turn into a pandemic.
Those experts also offered their views on why they thought this worrying situation had come about. Their answer turned out to be the same as the key problem outlined in the earlier Techdirt story -- the failure of patents to encourage the development of drugs that maximized public health rather than private profits:
respondents to the Global Risks Perception Survey connected antibiotic-resistant bacteria to failure of the
international intellectual property regime. This global risk is defined in the survey as "the loss of the international intellectual property regime as an effective system for stimulating innovation and investment" -- that is, going beyond the mechanisms of protecting IP to encompass the idea that the ultimate purpose of the IP system is to stimulate worthwhile innovation. The connection highlights a global market failure to incentivize front-end investment in antibiotic development through the promise of longer-term commercial reward, a failure which also applies to drugs to fight malaria and vaccines for pandemic influenza.
Rather than today's monopolistic hoarding, what we need is more sharing of knowledge, the Global Risks Report suggested:
There is also potential to use public or philanthropic funding to incentivize academic collaboration with pharmaceutical industry researchers, and more inter-company collaboration as well. Breakthroughs in antibiotic innovation will require pooling and
sharing of knowledge among academia, private companies and government regulators. Companies and foundations like GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are pioneering an "open-lab" approach to research which refutes the idea that secrecy and patented monopolies are the bedrock of innovation.
Given Microsoft's fervent assertions of precisely this idea, there is a certain irony in a Bill Gates-funded organization being praised for refuting it.
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