Professor Schellekens: patents on medicines are immoral

The pharmaceutical industry abuses patents to ask exorbitant prices, says Dr. Huub Schellekens, professor at Utrecht University, in an interview with Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant (11 August, paywall).

In the Netherlands, one of the richest countries in the world, the “College van Zorgverzekeringen”, the government organization responsible for reimbursing medical costs, started a discussion on whether it is still possible to reimburse the high costs for treating the Fabry and Pompe diseases. In this discussion, senator and ethicist Heleen Dupuis said the high costs of care disrupt the Dutch society. She supported stopping the reimbursement of the costs for these diseases.

According to professor Schellekens the production of the drug to treat the Pompe disease costs about four thousand euro per patient per year. The pharmaceutical industry asks half a million per patient per year. This is not justified according to Schellekens, since medical tests are cheaper with orphan diseases, as the test group is smaller. In the interview, Schellekens gave more examples of drug prices being 100 times more expensive than production costs.

De Volkskrant asked the professor how much we spend in the Netherlands per year on medicines. He estimates it is in the order of 10, 12 billion euro. “It is the fastest growing entry in the healthcare sector. One always hears that aging causes the rising costs of health care, but that is a terrible misunderstanding. (…) The companies spend a major part of that money to protect their exclusive position. If you capitalize that, I estimate that we, the consumers, pay 5 or 6 billion too much.”

Schellekens argues that patent protection for medicines can no longer be justified. “They are immoral because they make medicines unreachable for most of the world’s population.”

He advocates to stop granting patents on medicines, the prices will drop as much as 80 percent. According to his estimate “the world will at least save 400 billion euro, more than enough to fund fundamental and sustainability-oriented research into new medicines.”

Schellekens’ ideas resemble the ideas put forward by Nobel laureate in Economic Sciences Joseph E Stiglitz, Senator Bernie Sanders (USA) and organizations such as TransAtlantic Consumer Dialogue, Health Action International (Europe), Knowledge Ecology International and Oxfam.

Schellekens would like to ask the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to invalidate the Pompe disease drug patent as the price of half a million per patient per year is immoral.

As we for instance see with ACTA, there is an increasing interest in having intellectual property rights tested against fundamental rights. IP rights are becoming increasingly intrusive.

Although the savings may turn out to be enormous, and it could ascertain access to medicines, Schellekens observes politicians in the Netherlands are not interested in the role patents play. The pharmaceutical industry has an incredibly strong lobby.

A day later, Hans Büller, chairman of Erasmus MC Board of Directors, said on national television news that a group of EU countries should start to develop not for profit medicines. According to Büller, the urgent situation asks for a rigorous and unorthodox approach.

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