Experts jab over drug patent reform and the best approach to innovation

One of the most persistent arguments in the biopharma business these days is focused squarely on the length of patent protection a new treatment has when it goes on the market. The industry has always wanted more, basing its argument on the idea that shorter periods of market protection reduce the earnings it can expect and undercut the ability to innovate. Patient advocates typically cry out for less, maintaining greedy pharma companies just want more money and longer patents don't translate into innovation anyway.

The Wall Street Journal has produced one of its pro/con segments, with two experts taking opposite corners in the battle over which approach is right.

Josh Bloom, director of chemical and pharmaceutical sciences at the American Council on Science and Health, paints a woeful picture of Big Pharma today. With regulatory demands rising, it takes much longer to gain an approval. Costs have soared while the length of patent protection has dwindled. Drug companies are turning to line extensions, usually simple tweaks to meds that can be used to extend patent protection. Furthermore, a weakened pharma industry overall has been shedding hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Interestingly, Bloom believes those line-extension patent periods should be cut, thereby allowing pharma to stay focused on true innovation of important new treatments. And he wants a longer period of patent protections on the new meds to reward the companies' true innovators.

Els Torreele, director of the Access to Essential Medicines Initiative of the Open Society Foundation's Public Health Program, counters that pharma companies stopped innovating a long time ago. Real breakthrough drugs took the back seat to anything that could earn cash. And they don't have to prove that a treatment is superior to existing drugs--a comparative effectiveness approach.

Torreele calls on the agency to start applying the new comparative effectiveness metric before companies can earn patent protection. And she rejects the argument over the R&D costs at pharma, noting that the companies typically earn many times what they invested in their top earners. Extending patents might make companies more profitable, but it would do nothing to improve innnovation.

There's something in these arguments for everyone in the industry to chew on. But there's also little indication that a divided Congress has any ability to reach consensus on just how drug patents might be reformed in the near-term.

- here's the WSJ article

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