Source: WSJ Pharmalot
File this under ‘Nothing like getting off to a good start.’
Last week, Stefan Oschmann, the chief executive officer at Merck KGgA, was elected president of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association, a trade group for drug makers that is based in Europe. This is a high-profile position, of course, that offers a platform for conveying industry views about a variety of pressing issues.
And so, on the same day that his appointment was announced, Oschmann appeared at a health care conference last week in New York, where he said something that upset patient advocacy groups. What was that? “There is zero evidence that intellectual property is a hindrance to access to medicines,” Oschmann remarked, according to a Tweet by the Eli Lilly Twitter account.
Intellectual property issues, you may recall, are a flashpoint in the debate over access to medicines. The pharmaceutical industry argues that innovation will wither if countries do not enforce explicit patent rights, and has pushed for greater protection in various trade talks. The most recent example is the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations that are currently under way between 12 countries in the Asia and Pacific regions, including the U.S.
Patient advocacy groups counter that the industry argument for stronger intellectual property protection amount to a smokescreen for creating monopolies, which can lead to higher prices and make it difficult for people in low and middle-income countries to afford needed drugs.
For this reason, several groups, including Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, STOPAIDS and the American Medical Student Association, lashed out after reading Oschmann’s remark.
A spokesman for the IFPMA maintained the statement should be read in the context of Oschmann’s remarks and provided a transcript, which you can read here. A Merck KGgA spokeswoman declined to comment and referred us to the trade group, since Oschmann was speaking in his capacity as its new president. Both the drug maker and the trade group declined to respond directly to the criticism, although IFPMA did send astatement about the overall issue of access to medicines.
His statement appeared in this portion of the speech: “Innovation and intellectual property rights are at the core of our industry. We must continue to advocate for the recognition of the value of innovation and intellectual property as an enabler of sustainable access. There is zero evidence that intellectual property is a hindrance to access to medicines. We feel that part of the intellectual property debate, at the global health level, is more influenced by industrial policy considerations rather than patient access.”
Advocacy groups, nonetheless, maintain Oschmann is incorrect. “Anyone who says there is zero evidence that patents hinder access to medicines is either really stupid, or acting as if everyone else is really stupid,” says Jamie Love of Knowledge Ecology International, a non-profit that tracks patent and access issues, in a statement. “IFPMA member companies have been trying to price cancer drugs at more than $100 per day in India, a country with average incomes just over $4 per day.
“In what universe does this not hinder access?” he continues. “It is unfortunate that an important trade association like IFPMA has elected someone who has zero appreciation for the crisis in access to new medicines, and plays the clown, when we need real leadership and engagement, to reform a broken business model.”
The transcript indicates that Oschmann stated a commitment to improving access to medicines, and maintained that “every player in global health needs to break away from a siloed and vertical market… I think it is equally naive to believe that the people involved in the pharmaceutical industry are only driven by profit as it is to believe that people in the public institutions are only driven by the common good.”
Access, he argued, “goes beyond the mere supply and availability of drugs and medicines. Access is not only about awareness, prevention or treatment, but it is also about the physical accessibility, financial affordability and acceptability of health services by populations.”
At the same time, he acknowledged the challenges by noting that more than 96% of medicines on the WHO Essential Drugs List are off-patent and “fewer than 45% percent are accessible by patients who need them most, in markets where resources are most constrained.” And Oschmann also said that “I want to reiterate the importance of strong intellectual property rights frameworks as an enabler for innovation and access… It is clear that IP [intellectual property] is not the problem, but part of the solution.”
The patient advocates are unmoved, however. Merith Basey, the executive director at the Universities Allied for Essential Medicines in North America, wants Oschmann to retract his statement that there is “zero evidence that intellectual property is a hindrance to access to medicines.” We asked the IFPMA spokesman if a retraction is forthcoming and will provide any reply.
An IFPMA spokesman sent us a statement saying that “access to medicines is complex and multi-faceted and it goes beyond the mere supply and availability of medicines. A number of variables play a major role in determining the extent of patient access… in a safe and timely manner. These include the efficiency of the distribution system, infrastructure, effectiveness and reliability of health care systems, patient access to insurance, as well as government taxation and procurement policies.”
Meanwhile, the Lilly tweet containing Oschmann’s remark, which you can see here, was removed shortly after his appearance last week. A spokeswoman for Eli Lilly says this was done “because it could be taken out of context. We believe that intellectual property continues to be a key incentive for innovation and has supported the development of the vast majority of medicines we benefit from today.”