By Kevin E. Noonan --
The New York Times in a recent video (see "'Could You Patent the Sun?'") has returned to its theme against patenting, particularly with regard to patents for life-saving drugs. This time the paper invokes the meme of Jonas Salk and his response to a question during an interview by Edward R. Murrow that patenting his polio vaccine would be like "patenting the sun." He certainly said that, and he certainly meant it, and the sentiment has a visceral appeal that echoes the success of the ACLU's anti-gene patenting campaign. But a closer look at the circumstances in which Dr. Salk could make this statement, and the realities facing drug development today, points out again how dangerous facile pronouncements made in the media (social or conventional) can inhibit rational debate by masking the real differences (and associated challenges) between those times and our own.
As set forth in Jane S. Smith's 1990 book "Patenting the Sun: Polio and the Salk Vaccine," Dr. Salk operated under conditions that gave him the luxury of not having to worry about patents. One was the famous "March of Dimes" campaign of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which was created specifically to address polio by President Roosevelt (himself a polio sufferer) in 1938. The disease, virtually unheard of before the turn of the last century, created a popular panic wherein tens of thousands of children were incapacitated annually, and the grassroots efforts of the March of Dimes generated more than $200 million for research and patient care. Salk's work (as well as that of Albert Sabin on what would become the preferred form of the vaccine) was funded by March of Dimes money, circumstances very different from how science is funded today.
Other differences involve the regulatory environment and the costs such regulations impose on drug development. Of course, these regulations are also responsible for protecting (albeit sometimes imperfectly) the American public from ineffective or dangerous drugs, and so the societal costs need to be balanced with increased barriers to new vaccines and other drugs. But as Ms. Smith sets out, Dr. Salk was able to test early prototypes of his vaccine on children in a nearby institution caring for mental retardation, and the force of the fear regarding polio was such that the propriety of this testing was not questioned. Moreover, Salk did his work prior to the thalidomide tragedy that led to changes in FDA laws and regulations that greatly increased the stringency (and thus the cost) of obtaining approval. While a great deal of the cost of drug development can be laid at the feet of other aspects of this endeavor (the cumulative costs of many failed drugs for each successful one, for example), much of the increased costs of bringing new drugs to market since Dr. Salk's day has to do with this increased (but societally desirable) regulatory burden.
But even in view of these realities, the basis for an increasing amount of political pressure on drug companies is higher drug costs, particularly (and ironically) for biologic drugs which have significant advantages in addressing otherwise intractable diseases and which can have a specificity unknown for conventional drugs. It is easy but incorrect to attribute these costs to patents, but it is equally unavailing to ignore the political power of the many memes relating to failures in American capitalism that permit these seeming cost imbalances to arise.
If the future appears to contain even more expensive drugs and a political backlash against them, then a clear-eyed assessment of that future can provide at least three alternatives. The first is that the drugs will exist but that their availability will be stratified, between those who will be able to afford them on their own (either out-of-pocket or through so-called "Cadillac" health insurance plans) or through government-sponsored programs for select groups (veterans, for example) and those (perhaps the majority of Americans) who will not. The second is that these drugs will not be developed in the U.S., due to changes in patent or regulatory law that provide disincentives to development (such as further erosion of patent eligibility by the Supreme Court or a reduction in market exclusivity for biologic drugs as sought after by the Obama Administration). Neither of these alternatives is palatable, socially or politically.
A third course that may have the ability to address the growing problem of unsustainable increases in drug pricing would be some sort of cost control (presumably by the Federal government, analogous to systems in place in Europe and elsewhere), but to be practical there would need to be an economic incentive for the biotech and pharmaceutical industry to acquiesce. One quid pro quo in this calculus would be a reversal in the current regime that the FDA imposes user fees on applicants for regulatory approval, and instead to have the government pay the costs of its regulatory requirements. There is precedent in the negotiations leading to passage of the "Obamacare" healthcare overhaul to have government and the pharmaceutical industry come to an agreement over new ways to reduce healthcare costs. Such a tradeoff could reduce a significant proportion of the costs of new drug development and thus eliminate the economic pressure for legitimate recompense that is likely not economically sustainable (see, e.g., Picchi, "The cost of Biogen's new drug: $750,000 per patient"). And it might also attenuate the FDA's requirements for approval, wherein the agency as a Federal bureaucracy might have incentives to balance its mandate to ensure safety and efficacy of approved drugs with the realities of drug development, to make both more realistic.
But it is clear that something must be done, if only to ensure that our ability to produce more effective drugs does not founder on soundbite-driven, simplistic solutions to the problems of providing efficient incentives for doing so.