Tuberculosis (TB) is a serious respiratory bacterial infection that affects more than 10 million people each year, according to the World Health Organization. Developing countries, in particular, face significant challenges treating and curing the disease. In 2016 alone 1.7 million people died from TB.
Given the gravity of this challenge, world leaders will attend a first-ever United Nations High-Level Meeting (UNHLM) on TB in New York this September.
This summer diplomats at the UN negotiated a declaration to be presented at the UNHLM on TB to set global priorities in the fight against the deadly disease. Appropriately, many delegations focused on the urgent need to strengthen weak and underfunded health care systems that have allowed TB to spread. But, despite overwhelming evidence showing otherwise, many delegations tried to single out intellectual property protection as a scapegoat for addressing the complex, systematic barriers to better TB diagnosis treatment that run deep in developing nations. Some delegates and outside activists have advocated for pushing the boundaries of global trade agreements, while asserting that intellectual property drives up the price of TB medicines.
The facts tell the real story: that intellectual property is not a barrier to access.
- The majority of TB medicines are generic and available at low prices from multiple quality-assured suppliers. For instance, a six-month regimen of TB treatment costs less than $20 per patient.
- Even new, patented TB medicines are widely distributed through robust access programs, including donations, partnerships, differential pricing and voluntary license agreements.
- Additionally, in many developing countries, non-profit organizations such as Global Drug Facility and Global Fund also offer free or heavily-discounted TB medicines through public sector procurement programs.
- At least one-third of high-burden countries have left global donor funding on the table. In fact, usage rates of global grants have been as low as 38 percent.
Despite these extraordinary efforts to improve access to TB medicines, patients still face serious access barriers in developing countries. That’s because access to TB medicines is primarily hindered by systemic issues, such as poor hospitalization procedures, weak health infrastructure, and lack of health financing. Treating TB requires effective, efficient health systems, advanced diagnostics, and trained providers to administer and monitor treatment courses. Developing and even middle-income countries often struggle to provide these services, especially due to insufficient public funding of health care.
The UNHLM must address the true hurdles hindering our fight against TB, rather than damaging proposals that weaken innovation.
For these reasons, the fight against TB defies simple, one-size-fits-all solutions. When well-funded activist groups launch ideologically driven attacks on intellectual property, they only make it harder to focus on the real barriers. A more thoughtful conversation would recognize that the world must do more to incentivize new research into cutting-edge TB treatments, diagnostics and vaccines. Intellectual property protections, which enable private sector firms to recoup costs of research and development and fund future cycles of innovation, is one such incentive.
When global leaders meet at the September UNHLM, they must rise above the tired ideological arguments on intellectual property and confront the true hurdles hindering our fight against TB. Winning the fight against TB will require all actors – international organizations, countries, civil society and the private sector – to work together to find practical solutions. Policies that undermine intellectual property will not advance our fight against TB. Rather, they will only significantly discourage private investment in research and development in tomorrow’s TB treatments, diagnostics and cures.