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16th September 2011

Developing new drugs is only half the battle

Universities are selling drug patents which last for 20 years, allowing companies to charge extortionate prices for vital medicines.

We used the climb up Breithorn as an opportunity to raise awareness for a campaign by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) for ‘Access to Essential Medicine’. Apart from providing medical aid to war-torn countries and earthquake victims, the NGO gives pharmaceutical companies a hard time for overpricing drugs in the developing world.

The key problem is that drug patents sold by universities in the UK to pharmaceutical companies last for at least 20 years. This blocks market competition and allows companies to charge extortionate prices. When Bristol Myers Squibb bought the patent for the HIV drug Zerit from Yale University, they charged $15,000 per patient per year.

But after Médecins Sans Frontières ran a campaign against their unfair pricing, they brought the cost down to just $350 per year. This saved thousands of lives.

Scientific research and clinical practice is only half the battle in medicine; we also need to address the huge economic barriers to good health. The Manchester branch of Universities Allied for Essential Medicine (UAEM) says that a staggering one third of the world’s population “lacks regular access to [vital] medicines. As a result, it is estimated that ten million people die every year from preventable or otherwise treatable diseases.”

The Universities of Oxford and Edinburgh have already thrown out the patent system and allowed the drugs they develop to be produced by any company anywhere in the world. This encourages market competition and means that prices drop to levels that people in developing countries can afford. This is an essential move forward that Manchester University needs to be a part of.

Khalil Secker is a second year medical student.

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