World Economic Forum Warns That Patents Are Making Us Lose The Race Against Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

from the people-are-beginning-to-talk dept

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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Filed Under: antibiotics, bacteria, patents, world economic forum

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Jan 2013 @ 9:52am


    Abstinence is a short-term "Kick the ball into the future" and actually afaik MDR is a far worse problem in industrial production of animals, where restaint is a lot more warrented! Farmers are very likely to contract a MDR infection.

    The problem on the long field is not the lack of potential drugs or their development. The problem is the lack of targeted drugs. If you develop a sweeping broad antibiotic, you hear "money, money, money". That is not what is needed to fight the new MDR bugs. Because we are using as much of the non-specific antibiotics they are useless against MDR.

    The change from sweeping broad antibiotics to far more specific drugs will, if not completely eliminate the problem, make it a lot more rare.

    The way to combat MDR in the foreseeable future is still antibiotics, but instead of overbroad antibiotics, they will have to be more and more specific. The first step is development in genera-specific biotics. Next step will be functional specific inhibitors. Afterwards, probiotics is likely to take over. In combination with specific inhibitors and targeted antibiotics, it is hands down a solution to the problems with antibiotics today.

    The incentive system we have today makes it impossible to develop a cure for very rare ailments and making too specific antibiotics has the same problem. As long as it is impossible to see the future it is impossible to predict when it is good business to go with targeted antibiotics. Therefore, the primary argument against the drug patent system is that the incentive is for conservative cases primarily (it is incredibly efficient to create a cleaner variant of an older drug and patent that, than actually develop something new). It is also reserved for popular ailments.

    Solutions to the incentive system for drug development are many, but it is becoming more and more apparent that there needs to be a broader and less conservative approach in the business. Whether it is through special clauses, exemptions or alternative incentive structures is up in the air.

    The problem is not necessarily a patent system. It is the incentives in it.

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