In Latin America, the right policies will expand patient access to innovation

Read this story in Spanish here.

Earlier this year, after a hard-fought accession process involving significant efforts to bring legislation, policies and practices up the standards of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Colombia was invited to be the 37th OECD member state.

In a critical win for patients across the country, Colombia agreed, as part of this process, to implement regulatory reforms that removed unnecessary barriers to the approval of new medicines. Of the 220 new medicines approved by drug regulators in Europe, Japan and the United States between 2011 and 2017, Colombia patients have access to just 21. Anything that can improve on that devastating statistic is progress.   

Despite these steps in the right direction, Colombia continues to pursue policies and practices that may undermine investment in future treatments and cures without necessarily providing immediate benefits to patients. The potential use of compulsory licensing—a drastic measure that breaks patent protections on new medicines—is a prime example.

“Compulsory licenses don’t guarantee lower prices or expanded access. In fact, by breaking patents, such hasty actions actually harm patients by undermining investment in future treatments and cures."

Right now, Colombia’s health ministry is considering whether to compulsory license an entire class of innovative medicines. It is not clear why. Certainly, the price of these medicines can’t be the reason. The Colombian government buys them through a pooled procurement arrangement that reduced their price more than 90 percent.

And research is demonstrating that compulsory licenses don’t guarantee lower prices or expanded access. In fact, by breaking patents, such hasty actions may actually harm patients by undermining investment in future treatments and cures and by creating uncertainty for innovators and investors with current or future interests in the region.

Rather, protecting patents and other intellectual property actually facilitates access to new treaments. A major study found that inventors of new medicines launch therapies sooner in countries with effective patent protection and enforcement. It showed that strong patent protection accelerates new product launches in higher and lower income countries alike.

Colombia’s experience is a cautionary tale for Chile, which is also considering whether to compulsory license new medicines. Damaging actions in Colombia drove a 60 percent decline in the number of clinical trials to test new medicines in that market between 2012 and 2017. As Latin America’s leader in the number of clinical trials per capita, Chile has even more to lose.

Amendments and proposals that, in effect, weaken intellectual property systems and create policy environments that discourage innovation and investment, are precisely the opposite of what Colombia, Chile and other Latin American countries should be striving for.

Instead, they should look to support innovation and encourage investment. This will lead to increased access to breakthrough products and processes across the region and will strengthen and grow national economies.