Private Profit and Public Health

Leading chemical and pharmaceutical corporations have added a new verse to an old song. Stung by hearings Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver held in the late 1950s on high drug prices, the drug industry assured the public that high profits meant more funds for better research. Today, drug and chemical companies ardently defend long-term patents, and the high prices they foster, as the only effective way to guarantee new breakthroughs. Unfortunately, corporate power over drug prices does more to enhance profits than improve the health of the world's people. Acceding to corporate blackmail is neither the only nor the best way to encourage better foods and medicines or expand access to these essentials.

Monsanto, which owns patents on genetically engineered soybean varieties, has attempted to prevent farmers from saving the seed of crops grown from these varieties for planting next season. While drug and chemical corporations oppose actions by farmers or legislators that might reduce their profit margins here, they enact an even deadlier strategy abroad. Multinational drug companies have extended their fight to AIDS-ravaged Africa by attempting to invalidate a South African law that, while still paying US firms a royalty on new drugs, would place limits on their prices.

The privileges these corporations now gain through patent law, especially as that law is extended to life itself, hardly serve the public interest. They foster an ever tighter corporate stranglehold both on research and on access to its fruits. The Constitution sanctions patents, but the language is vague. Patents may be granted "to promote the useful arts." Throughout much of this century, to obtain a patent a product or process had to be novel, nonobvious, and socially useful. Patents have been limited to inventions of machines, processes, and synthetic materials. "Products of nature," such as elements and minerals, cannot be patented because they are found or discovered and not invented.

Responding to corporate pressure over the last two decades, the Patent Office has taken a problematic step-- extending patent protection to genes, human cell lines, and plant strains. As Jonathan King, professor of molecular biology at MIT and Doreen Stabinsky, a geneticist serving as scientific advisor to Greenpeace argued two years ago in the February 5, 1999, Chronicle Of Higher Education: "When a sunflower is genetically engineered, only a minute amount of foreign material is added to it. The sunflower is still a sunflower &endash; the corporation adding the new material did not 'invent' the sunflower. Patent protection gives to that 'inventor' rights over all sunflowers modified in the same way, and all their progeny for the next twenty years."

Corporations argue that such protection is needed to stimulate research. Yet such arguments are oblivious to the history of the biotech revolution. King and Stabinsky remind us: "The biotechnology revolution was the product of a broadbased biomedical research and training campaign launched by the Congress after WWII, and based in colleges, universities and medical schools throughout the nation. Essential to this public endeavor was the free communication and exchange of materials and ideas. Major scientific advances, such as the determination of the amino acid sequences that made up protein chains, were openly communicated and entered the public domain. The enormous inventiveness of this period occurred without patents."

Inventiveness is especially impeded when patents extend to the building blocks of nature. Researchers working for private corporations or even public universities that hope to patent discoveries cannot disclose results of their work to others without risk to their claims of originality. The rush to patent genes dampens the public exchange of vital scientific breakthroughs.

Patenting nature's building blocks does more to guarantee corporate profits than to promote the public good. When Monsanto insists that farmers pay for seeds saved from previous crops, it does little more than exacerbate a dangerous process of corporate consolidation of our food supply. Monsanto and DuPont already control about half of the US soy and corn seed markets. Similarly, the long-term patents held by drug manufacturers are a major reason they have reaped profits far in excess of US manufacturing norms.

Just as the original biotech revolution wasn't funded or directed primarily by private corporations, the development of mid-20th-century drug advances was not either. Polio vaccine and penicillin research were supported by government and foundation grants. Even today, much current drug development is still dependent on publicly financed research -- though the profits from marketing those drugs now accrue primarily to the private sector.

Developing new drugs through public research with fair compensation to the public for its initiatives is a sounder business practice. When research is funded by patent protections, not only is information restricted but also other adverse economic consequences follow. As even the New York Times highlights in a March 11 Sunday magazine article on the allergy drug Claritin, patents entail substantial inefficiencies. They force the public to pay for both inordinate profit premiums and massive and often misleading advertising campaigns. In addition, patents themselves induce countermeasures by rivals of dubious benefit to most of us. Other pharmaceutical corporations strive to develop so-called "me too" drugs which often have little advantage except evading patents held by others. And finally, medical research driven by profit maximization strategies will focus on diseases and concerns of the wealthy, often at the expense of broader and more serious health concerns.

Writing in the January 29th issue of The American Prospect, Economist Dean Baker points out "consumers pay more than three and a half dollars to the drug industry for every dollar of research induced by patent protection." Baker also reminds us of "a long history of publicly minded research scientists who worked out of a desire to save lives, not to enrich themselves."

Medical and research agendas established by public boards will not be immune to personality conflicts or to the political and scientific fashions of the moment. Nonetheless, corporate research is hardly oblivious to momentary fashion, is tied to very narrow profit imperatives, and is increasingly closed to effective public scrutiny. Research agendas subject to the public's ultimate power of the purse and following open procedures provide the best means to check excesses and steer research toward areas of enduring need.

Historically, many of the best and the brightest worked hard to provide the breakthroughs on which public health depended. Even if great wealth eluded them, public policy assured ample support for capable scientists working in areas of grave social need Asked if he would patent polio vaccine, Jonas Salk once famously replied: "what, would you patent the sun?" We forget the legacy of scientists like Salk at our peril.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues.

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