Patent Nonsense: Why Drug Development Deserves IP Protection - And Yoga Doesn't

May. 8.07 | About: Novartis AG (NVS)

A comment in the last post pointed me to an op-ed in yesterday's New York Times by Suketu Mehta. It's on India and intellectual property, specifically the idea of patenting yoga techniques. Mehta finds this both laughable and troubling, while noting that most of the applicants are overseas Indians themselves. I'm no yoga expert (maybe Michael Blowhard can, uh, enlighten us on the issue), but as it goes on, Mehta's piece gets off some remarkably cloth-headed observations on drug patents:

Western pharmaceutical companies make billions on drugs that are often first discovered in developing countries — but herbal remedies like bitter gourd or turmeric, which are known to be effective against everything from diabetes to piles, earn nothing for the country whose sages first isolated their virtues. The Indian government estimates that worldwide, 2000 patents are issued a year based on traditional Indian medicines.

Drugs and hatha yoga have the same aim: to help us lead healthier lives. India has given the world yoga for free. No wonder so many in the country feel that the world should return the favor by making lifesaving drugs available at reduced prices, or at least letting Indian companies make cheap generics. If padmasana — a k a the lotus position — belongs to all mankind, so should the formula for Gleevec...

There's more where that came from, and if you wish you can drink from this fount of wisdom yourself. Rinse thoroughly.

OK, where to start? The whole piece is a panoramic view of the fallacy that chewing a leaf (or finding out what leaves the natives chew) is equivalent to discovering a drug. That skips over some rather intricate and expensive steps - isolating the active fractions of the original medicine, determining what compounds are in there and what their structures are, figuring out what they do and how they do it, improving them to make them less toxic and more efficacious, and figuring out how to dose them. Then there's the little matter of scores of millions of dollars to be spent on clinical trials.

Perhaps I could start by asking for a list of those patents - granted patents, mind you, not applications - that were apparently issued in complete ignorance of all that well-established prior art? Sure, I'm game. Anyone who has the 2006 list of the two thousand patents ripping off traditional Indian medicine, send it along. If no one has last year's roundup yet, I'll take the list from 2005 - another two thousand! How many are there in reality, do you think? How many of them come from real drug companies?

If not that, I'd be glad to hear about those drugs that were "often" first discovered in developing countries. How often is that, exactly? While there are examples, I'm rather hard pressed to come up with many recent ones. Despite what you might think from the editorial, Novartis' (NYSE:NVS) Gleevec is not one of them, unless Switzerland is your idea of a developing country. Besides, we're skipping all those steps again if we decide that Madagascar gets all the credit for, say, vincristine. As for bitter gourd and turmeric, even if those ancient sages had filed for proto-patents of some sort, wouldn't their terms have, y'know, expired by now? Patents aren't forever, although you wouldn't know this from reading this stuff.

That brings us up to that "yoga is free, and Gleevec should be, too" argument. Again, I hardly know which handle to grasp. There's always the very basic argument, which I will advance in a small, weary voice, that if Gleevec and other medications were given away for free that it might be difficult to persuade people to spend hundreds of millions of dollars developing them.

But enough logic! Let Mehta offer up some similar arguments and see how they fly: because the idea of pasta was given to the world for free, no Italian restaurant should be able to charge money for it. Not bad... how about, because my daughter gives me a drawing for free to put on my wall, no one should ever charge anything to see a painting? Here we go - what about those darn Sumerians and their writing? How can the publishing industry show its face, when cuneiform was released straight into the public domain?! Oh, I like this, it's a lot easier than science - which I think is the point, right there...