The Vatican took on “Big Pharma” last week, asking the international community to reform laws that allow drug companies to blindly pursue profits while keeping life-saving drugs out of the hands of poor people.
According to Vatican Radio, last Wednesday Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi, the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, spoke at a UN Forum dedicated to making medicines more affordable and accessible for people in poorer nations. In his address, Tomasi argued that there are many obstacles that keep poor people from purchasing drugs, but called out one issue as particularly devastating: the abuse of intellectual property laws by pharmaceutical companies.
“A major stumbling block in providing such access is found in restrictive applications and interpretations of intellectual property rights by many in the pharmaceutical industry,” Tomasi said, adding “[The current system] can lead to total disregard for those who cannot afford the price of certain medical products and allow an imbalanced free trade system, and thus constitute a virtual monopoly.”
The Archbishop also noted that most intellectual property systems only incentivize developing medications that accrue the biggest profits, which usually means companies spend the vast majority of their resources making drugs for people in wealthier nations. As such, businesses often fail to develop treatments for maladies common in poorer countries, such as tropical diseases, tuberculosis, malaria, hepatitis, and Ebola.
“It is most regrettable, therefore, that, due to an excessive focus on profit, we witness a preference within much of the pharmaceutical industry to orient research toward health issues that have greater market potential in wealthier industrialized countries,” Tomasi said.
Tomasi didn’t outline specific changes that could be made to intellectual property laws — that would require, among other things, legal shifts in many countries. But he did advocate for “a creative and innovative approach” that “prioritiz[ed] the life and dignity of the world’s most vulnerable people, many of whom bear an inequitable burden of both communicable and non-communicable diseases.”
Intellectual property laws are ostensibly designed to help companies make a profit off of the products they make; basically, if a business puts in the work to create or invent something, the logic goes that they should be able to reap the profits for a time before other people are able to create and sell a similar product. Yet, as the Catholic Church noted last week, the intellectual property system has been repeatedly abused in ways that bolster corporate profits but hurt the world’s poor, 2.6 million of whom die every year from diseases that receive only a fraction of pharmaceutical research money, according to a 2012 report from Doctors Without Borders. The same report noted that only 3.8 percent of approved drugs from 2001 and 2011 were developed to treat “neglected diseases,” or maladies where “treatment options are inadequate or don’t exist” or where “drug-market potential is insufficient to readily attract a private sector response.”
This ruthless pursuit of profits can even lead to epidemics. In January, health care advocates criticized drug companies Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline for making vaccines too expensive for children in poor countries, and last November the World Health Organization (WHO) cited the pharmaceutical industry’s obsession with the bottom line as the primary reason for a delay in creating an Ebola vaccine: most Western pharmaceutical companies were slow to pursue a vaccine for the disease, WHO officials said, because the virus wasn’t prevalent outside of Central Africa.
The Vatican’s statement helps add a moral heft to intellectual property disputes that have raged for some time — including domestic debates here in the U.S. When lawmakers were crafting the Affordable Care Act (ACA) back in 2010, for instance, there was disagreement over how long drug companies should be able to hold exclusive rights over “biologics,” a powerful — but expensive — new medical treatment that can be used to treat diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, breast cancer, and possibly even Parkinson’s disease. Prior to the ACA, there wasn’t even a mechanism for creating “generic” biologics in the United States, even though many existed in Europe and Canada, meaning that these life-saving treatments could remain expensive indefinitely. Lawmakers successfully included a provision in the ACA that allowed the FDA to approve generic biologics called “biosimilars,” but while President Barack Obama and others wanted to restrict the market “exclusivity window” — or how long drug companies retain control over medical patents for biologics — to 7 years, pharmaceutical lobbyists prevailed and pushed the period to 12 years in the final law.
The controversy continued, however, and in 2011 the Obama administration proposed reducing the exclusivity window to 7 years, which would result in $3.5 billion in savings over 10 years to federal health programs and get cheaper drugs into the hands of more people more quickly. But pharmaceutical companies have fought hard to retain control over their patents for as long as possible: in 2013, groups such as the AARP noticed that pharmaceutical companies were vying to write the 12-year market exclusivity period into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade deal. Doing so would effectively cement the window into national law, and significantly hamper efforts to reduce it to 7 years or lower.
These pharmaceutical companies are rooted in the West, but sell their products to governments worldwide, so domestic disputes over intellectual property rights have international ramifications. Thus, while Catholic Church officials and other health care advocates agree that companies should be able to reap the benefits of their labor, they argue that Big Pharma profits shouldn’t come at the expense of those who need their medicine the most — poor people.
Taking on the drug industry and overhauling a global intellectual property system is a tall order, and the Catholic Church certainly can’t change things overnight on its own. Still, the Vatican and Pope Francis have shown themselves highly capable of impacting domestic and international health policy in the past — Catholics were crucial players on both sides of the debate over the ACA, for instance. More importantly, with more than more than 5,000 Catholic-owned hospitals and 18,000 health dispensaries spread across the globe, the Church is as well positioned as anyone to address health issues on an international scale.