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In the adventure film Sahara, General Kazim states: "Don't worry. It's Africa. Nobody cares about Africa." In 2009, it's estimated that 33 million people are living with HIV/AIDS, with almost 70% living in Africa. Putting aside for a moment the conspiracy theories around the origin of AIDS, clearly this is a disease that causes untold hardships, suffering, and death.

There exist drugs that can control the disease. These medicines are made by pharmaceutical companies in the West. Enormous capital went into inventing these drugs. Significant risk was undertaken. As a result, these pharmaceutical companies think they should be compensated for their achievements. As a result, the prices for the drugs are very high and out of reach for most of the infected population.

How is it that drug companies can charge such a high price? One reason: intellectual property laws. IP laws provide the drug companies monopolies on their ideas and, as a result, it is illegal for others to copy the formulas, manufacturing processes, etc. Without these IP laws, generic drugs would be produced and sold everywhere, thus saving the lives of millions.

Certainly, just as government grants these companies monopolies over their intellectual property, government could also eliminate IP laws and make it legal for others to produce these drugs. It's basic economics according to the supply and demand curve: as with any market that has increased competition (and, thus, increased supply), prices would drop significantly. But, as prices drop, so do the profits for the pharmaceutical companies. Drug companies have little interest in selling to markets that can't afford their products or produce profits.

Now, for those who are against the free market/capitalism and big companies hurting the "little guy," here's an idea: eliminate IP laws. In one swoop, those who have been "stuck" working for a company to make ends meet could now compete against the large companies using similar (or even improved) ideas. Think of all the new drug companies that would be created, and all the new jobs, to manufacture generic drugs. The large drug companies would have to cut their prices (and, thus, profits) significantly in order to remain competitive. With less profit and more competition, they would have less power to control the pharmaceutical markets. The prices of drugs would plummet. Lives would be saved. The poor and middle class could, almost instantly, compete with the wealthy.

If the pharmaceutical companies no longer had IP laws to protect their monopolies, what do you think would happen? Would we see less new drugs and innovation? Would we see disease rates increase because no one would want to invest or take risks or decrease because so many more would now have access to drugs they could afford? Should drug companies be forced to sell their products at low prices (i.e., price ceilings) so that more could afford them? Are we a bad society when we prevent people from getting the medical care that could save their lives? Should lifesaving medicines be a human right?

...people shouldn't have to die from HIV/AIDS. There are good medicines out there, and they can control the disease. It's remarkable actually as the above video can attest. In fact, for those in the developed world, HIV/AIDS is now considered a chronic disorder, not a death sentence. If you are diagnosed, you are no longer forced to take a shortcut to demise. You can still have a long life, you can still be productive, and you can still live with dignity.

Unfortunately, this wasn't an option for those who passed away. For them, the medicines were out of reach. They were simply too expensive. And from this, you come to realize a cold hard fact in this narrative: that the fate of a person living or dying from HIV/AIDS is determined by their income. This statement is fairly straightforward, with no mincing of words, or confused rhetoric. But for most, it feels fundamentally wrong, and yet, it is a simple reality of how the world works today. Why it works in this way, however, is complicated...

Imagine yourself an inventor. And you have invented something that many people want. Not only that, but you spent a significant amount of time and money on the way there. Naturally, you want to make sure you protect your innovation. You want to make sure that you are not only compensated for your work, but that you are rewarded accordingly - handsomely even. This is where government can step in: they can protect you, and they can do this by setting rules on intellectual property. They grant patents, which allow you to control your invention, and control how others can or cannot use it. The government sees obvious value in this, because the fact of the matter is that innovation needs help sometimes.

This, basically, is how the pharmaceutical industry works. They are inventors, and their product is medicine. Research and development costs are significant, both in terms of money and in terms of time, mostly because many of the things they invent do not work out in the end. They get patents, and are compensated and rewarded accordingly - relatively speaking, the pharmaceutical industry is rewarded very handsomely.

This is because there is a market for such things: whether we are talking about antiretroviral drugs for HIV or Viagra for lifestyle needs, in the developed world, people want these drugs (and in some cases, need these drugs), and are willing to pay for them. They do this, because they can, often with help from health care providers and government. The supply and demand is there, and the pharmaceutical industry knows how to play this game. You, the reader in the developed world, make the market.

Should everyone have access to lifesaving medicines?


Original posting by Braincrave Second Life staff on Apr 22, 2011 at http://www.braincrave.com/viewblog.php?id=535

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