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Our governments have chosen, over decades, to allow a strange system for developing medicines to build up. Most of the work carried out by scientists to bring a drug to your local pharmacist – and into your lungs, or stomach, or bowels – is done in government-funded university labs, paid for by your taxes.
Drug companies usually come in late in the process of development, and pay for part of the expensive, but largely uncreative final stages, like buying some of the chemicals and trials that are needed. In return, then they own the exclusive rights to manufacture and profit from the res
a detailed study by Dr Marcia Angell, the former editor of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, says that only 14 per cent of their budgets go on developing drugs – usually at the uncreative final part of the drug-trail. The rest goes on marketing and profits. And even with that puny 14 per cent, drug companies squander a fortune developing "me-too" drugs – medicines that do exactly the same job as a drug that already exists, but has one molecule different, so they can take out a new patent, and receive another avalanche of profits.
As a result, the US Government Accountability Office says that far from being a font of innovation, the drug market has become "stagnant". They spend virtually nothing on the diseases that kill the most human beings, like malaria, because the victims are poor, so there's hardly any profit to be sucked out.
We all suffer as a result of this patent dysfunction. The European Union's competition commissioner, Neelie Kroes, recently concluded that Europeans pay 40 per cent more for their medicines than they should because of this "rotten" system – money that could be saving many lives if it was redirected towards real health care.