A Patently Simple Idea

Tweaking U.S. law could improve access to medicines in poor countries

| Utne Reader July / August 2007

Editor's Note: Foreign Policy declares itself a magazine of 'global politics, economics, and ideas.' Note that final word. In a field prone to wonky, sometimes impenetrable coverage, 'ideas' suggests there's something beyond analysis and commentary-the opportunity to think, to imagine, and to bring something truly fresh to the fore.

True to that end, Foreign Policy approached 21 leading thinkers and challenged them to answer a hopeful question: What is one solution that would make the world a better place? The answers, published in the May/June 2007 issue as '21 Solutions to Save the World,' are at once lively and serious, both global-minded and personal. Proposals include salary and inheritance caps to end inequality; restructuring clinical trials to speed along an AIDS vaccine; and creating a restricted '.bank' domain to combat online fraud. One of the most compelling ideas, a way to get medicine to poverty-stricken countries, comes from Sebastian Mallaby, director of the Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

My favorite underappreciated idea is the brainchild of Jean O. Lanjouw, a University of California, Berkeley, economist who died tragically two years ago. It is a scheme that would improve access to medicines in poor countries, cost nothing, and, unlike most plans to improve the world, involve no treaties, summits, or complex international coordination.

During the last half-decade or so, when it comes to the problem of medical access in poor countries, progress has come on two fronts. Even though vaccines for diseases such as polio, yellow fever, and hepatitis B have been around for ages, poor countries can't afford to buy them, and during the 1990s vaccine makers stopped manufacturing them. The solution to this lack of consumer power is costly but conceptually simple: Led by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, aid donors have begun to put money into a vaccine-purchase fund.

The second area of progress concerns the lack of incentive for drug companies to invent new cures for diseases that affect the poor. Nearly all of the world's drug development addresses the health concerns of rich people: Of the 1,233 drugs licensed worldwide between 1975 and 1997, only 13 targeted tropical diseases. The solution here is 'advance market commitments,' wherein donors promise to buy a drug that tackles a 'poor disease,' committing to purchase a set number of doses at a set price. The first such promise was issued in February. Donors declared they would buy drugs to treat pneumococcal disease, a major cause of pneumonia and meningitis that kills 1.6 million people every year.

Lanjouw's idea tackles a third part of the drug-access puzzle. It is aimed at diseases that affect everyone in rich and poor countries alike. For these conditions-heart disease, cancer, diabetes-there is plenty of incentive to invent new drugs but little likelihood that any of them will reach poor patients. The drugs are protected by patents, and, thanks to U.S. trade policy, the patents uphold the inventors' monopolies even in developing countries, meaning that nobody can afford them there.

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