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Medicines are made for two major reasons – to help people and to make money. Which one is more important?

On one hand, helping people is good. Curing the sick, easing suffering, what’s not to love? On the other hand, money is the incentive for new innovations. That’s just the way it works, you have to pay the big bucks to get the best people to work their hardest. It takes about $800 million gold pieces and ten years to bring a drug to market, and frequently a drug will fail somewhere along the way meaning you get zippo, zilch, zero in return.

Drug companies make their money back by patenting it so that no one else is allowed to reproduce it for 10 years. It’s like a protection of intellectual property with a decade expiry date. After that it’s a free-for-all, and at the pharmacy you can choose “The Generic” as a cheaper alternative to the brand name. Hopefully during their decade-long monopoly, the drug company that made the damn thing in the first place can make their money back and trillions more in profit.

This is where patent piracy comes in.

Pirate Pills

India has a tendency to ignore drug patents. This week Gilead, a US company responsible for anti-HIV drug Tenofovir, lost their case to prevent Indian companies making cheap versions on the sly. Very cheap versions. Instead of $5,700 a year, you pay just $800. Indian based company Cipla also makes a three-in-one anti-HIV drug called Triomune for only $87 a year, and a cheap version of Tamiflu.

Dodgy stuff, and these companies have spent millions on creating and testing these molecules. On the other hand, the price tag on a lot of these drugs rules them out to many in developing countries. I’m pretty sure most drug companies have a discount price when sold in Africa, but I don’t think they get this cheap. Think about how many people in Africa are HIV positive and don’t have much money, think about how many people die because of it, then consider that Africa is only 1% of the world’s medicine market.

Piracy perhaps, but this isn’t really a case of “take what you can, give nothing back.” I doubt companies like Cipla are making cheap versions of drug for purely altruistic reasons and I’m sure they make plenty of money by doing it, but is this robbing the rich to cure the poor?

Hat-tip to Ben Goldacre at Bad Science, read his detailed story with all the linky goodness here. Cheers Ben! Big Pharma and developing countries is massive subject, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.