The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us just how tied our physical health is to every other aspect of our everyday lives – our jobs, our proximity to friends and family, our mental health, our financial stability. And as we continue the important process of rebuilding, we must also recognize and address the things that have not worked since long before March of last year.
One of the most important of these is America’s sky-high drug prices, which affect all Americans but place a disproportionate burden on those of color: More than 13 percent of Americans have lost a loved one in the past five years because they could not afford the cost of their medication. That number is double for people of color. Since the start of the pandemic, one-tenth of Black and Latino families and one-sixth of Indigenous families in the United States reported being unable to afford prescription medicines to manage a major health issue. New polling reflects that this is an issue most of us are concerned with, with a bipartisan majority of Americans – 77 percent – wanting to see congressional action on high drug prices.
Bringing down drug prices means saving lives. I co-founded I-MAK nearly 20 years ago as a human rights lawyer witnessing the deaths or financial devastation of my clients at the hands of high drug costs.
The good news: We know how to fix this.
The most direct way to solve our drug-pricing crisis is to fundamentally shift our patent system. I-MAK’s research on several of the best-selling drugs in America has established a clear connection between patent abuse and higher drug prices. In looking at the 10 top drugs, we found companies file an average of 131 patents per drug. This behavior leads to patent monopoly periods nearly doubling and prices rising exorbitantly. On one cancer drug alone, we estimated that the cost to Americans is poised to be $137 billion due to eight extra years of exclusivity granted through additional patents.
At a congressional hearing earlier this summer, lawmakers pointed to patent abuse as a key driver of high drug costs. While politicians on both sides of the aisle have promised to curtail these soaring costs for years, leaders have failed to rein in the abuses of corporations – leaving us with the status quo that puts power in the hands of corporations instead of consumers.
We can reverse this through an overhaul of our patent system, which must begin with a new director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. It is imperative that President Joe Biden moves on selecting this new leader immediately, given the role’s potential to bring down drug prices and increase equity in America. A USPTO director committed to meaningfully balancing the rights of companies and the rights of the public could help steward the country into a new era, and ensure Congress has the support it needs to understand which reforms will be impactful to stop patent gaming by pharmaceutical companies.
The most timely way in which we see the importance of patents play out is in the response to the global COVID-19 pandemic – the Biden administration’s stunning pledge earlier this year to support a waiver on intellectual property represented nothing short of a sea change in decades of U.S. trade policy.
It is critical not just to global safety, but our own safety here in America, that vaccines be made readily available around the world. I am fortunate to live in the United States, where vaccines have been accessible for months. But I am still highly concerned about the emergence of variants, which threaten both those who are vaccinated and kids like my own who are too young to be vaccinated. None of us here in America are safe until everyone is safe, as variants will emerge in other countries and make their way here as we’ve already seen. We also have a moral obligation at the global level to stop preventable deaths from the virus in countries with little to no access to vaccines like India and the entire continent of Africa. Bold USPTO leadership would help achieve the pandemic recovery that we so urgently need, and contribute to increasing access to vaccines that every human on the planet deserves.
Improving racial equity in America is another key issue the USPTO can play a major role in. I-MAK recently released a 10-point agenda for the administration to implement at the USPTO to do just that. Our recommendations focus on integrating equity into the patent system – from sharing intellectual property with lower-income countries with predominantly Black and brown populations in the midst of a global health crisis to ending the patent gaming by drugmakers that enables extended monopolies that drive up prices.
The longer this appointment is delayed, the less time we have to realize the promise and potential of a new tomorrow for this agency that touches every person’s life in America and influences policy and trade around the world. If we allow the status quo to remain as-is at the USPTO under interim leadership that bypasses public scrutiny, we will not meet this moment of opportunity to reform a system that does not work for most Americans.
The president has prioritized filling other important positions, and should not delay his choice any further on this agency. Business as usual just won’t cut it – we need a new vision to bring the USPTO into the 21st century to advance equity and fundamentally shift the status quo to one that is finally focused on the public interest.
Priti Krishtel is a co-founder and an executive director of the Initiative for Medicines, Access & Knowledge, a nonprofit organization working to address structural inequities in how medicines are developed and distributed.
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