The secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will increase patent protection for the benefit of big pharmaceutical companies, but are such policies really in the interests of global health?
Eradicating disease from the face of the Earth
There are many illnesses that I have never known in my life, but surely two of the most profound are smallpox and polio. Smallpox once killed 400,000 people annually in Europe alone, with as many as 500 million deaths worldwide attributed to the disease in the first 80 years of the 20th Century. Polio was once also endemic to most parts of the world. It killed, too, but also left sufferers – many of them children – with serious physical disabilities, including partial paralysis. Even in highly developed countries like the USA, tens of thousands of children contracted polio each year with scores forced into the dreaded “iron lung” just to keep breathing. Yet today polio exists in only a handful of countries.
These radical advances in global health are due to nothing more complicated than cheap medicine and extensive public health programs that owe more to the spirit of scientific discovery than mercantilism. Such advances often originate from unlikely sources.
In the late 18th century, Edward Jenner, a small-town English doctor, noticed that milkmaids rarely contracted smallpox. He soon came to the conclusion that this was because they were often infected with cowpox, a similar but less dangerous disease, as a result of their occupation, and that this immunized them against future infection. Jenner used this knowledge to develop a successful and safe vaccine against smallpox which he then refined and shared with others. The British government eventually awarded Jenner £30 000 to allow him to abandon his practice and focus on the vaccine. It was a generous gift, but could not have motivated the doctor – he had already made his discovery and shared his work before these awards were bestowed on him.
The history of polio is similar. A safe vaccine was developed against polio by research scientist Jonas Salk in 1955. Salk was funded by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now the March of Dimes) a group set-up by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to combat polio. When asked in an interview who owned the patent to his vaccine, Salk was taken aback, eventually responding, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” Shortly thereafter Albert Sabin, co-operating with Russian scientists, came up with a cheaper oral polio vaccination that is now used in most of the developing world. He didn’t patent it, either.