Patenting the Sun – A Summary of the Access to Medicines Conference

April 25, 2019
By Megan Hayes, Key Correspondent for the Irish Forum for Global Health

The idea of a patent free world was explored and debated throughout the 2019 Access to Medicines Conference held at the Royal College of Surgeons (RCSI) in Dublin on April 16th. “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” was the response in 1955 of Jonas Salk who invented the Polio Vaccine when questioned about its proprietary rights. As a basic principle, it remains as valid today as it did then. Human health does not have to subject to the forces of a commercial market.

In his address during the conference, Dr. Kieran Harkin, the co-founder of Access to Medicines Ireland, spoke about how patenting medications is an entirely new phenomenon. To illustrate the point, he played a short clip of Salk demonstrating how people can create lifesaving medications without the incentive of a patent.

Deputy Harty TD, Chair of the Joint Oireachtas Health Committee, delivered the opening remarks. He spoke of the importance for safe and effective medicines at a fair price and emphasised the need research focused on the greatest health needs of the nation, especially Ireland’s growing and ageing population. He closed his remarks calling for government, pharmaceutical companies, and patient advocates to work together on a solution for financial transparency and fair pricing of drugs.

The Keynote Speaker for the morning panel was Professor Michael Barry who is the Clinical Director of the National Center for Pharmacoeconomics. He began by quoting a study published in the New England Journal that says, “for the first time, improvements in inpatient mortality may be coming at unsustainable increases in cost.” He stressed the importance of the affordability of medicines but also of getting value for money. The professor closed with a caution, that if we don’t start to assess the value of drugs, 175 million euro will be added to cost of drugs in Ireland over the next 5 years.

The speakers of the morning panel included: Bas Leerink who worked to advise the Dutch government on how to increase their bargaining power and negotiation strategies with pharmaceutical companies; Kay Curtin who brought a patient perspective to the table and spoke about her battle with stage IV melanoma and how difficult it can be to find medication in between trials, licensing, and reimbursement windows or the “black holes of access” as she called it; Diarmaid McDonald of Just treatment UK, who spoke about decreasing focus on what’s not working, and moving towards what is working; such as increasing the power of the buyer and decreasing the power of monopolies, and decreasing power of pharmaceuticals on the political process.

The Keynote Speaker for the afternoon panel was James Love, Director of Knowledge Ecology International. He focused on the delinkage strategy to transform the business model of the pharmaceutical industries in order to reduce costs, widen access, and increase overall health. This idea, explained further on, states that research and development (R&D) costs should not be tied to the price of the product. Delinkage suggests other funding mechanisms for R&D by using subsidies such as grants, contracts, or tax credits to expand funding for research, drug development, and clinical trials. With this strategy, the goal is to make drugs become so affordable that everyone who needs drugs can access them.

The speakers of the afternoon panel included, Aoife Kirwan who is the lead for Advocacy, Research, and Information for MS Ireland but spoke from a patient perspective on the challenges she faces on a personal level living with MS. A powerful quote from her address was, “I thought the worst part of having MS would be having MS, but really it was the lack of access to proper treatments and medications that was the worst part of having MS.”

The second speaker of the afternoon was Michele Tait, former manager for the National Hepatitis C Treatment Programme. She spoke about a procurement strategy for hepatitis C drugs and a vision to make hepatitis C a rare disease in Ireland.

The third speaker, Dimitri Eynikel spoke about the importance of transparency between governments, enabling lower prices of medications and decreasing secrecy surrounding the cost of medications.

This year marks the third annual conference for Access to Medicines Ireland. Organizations supporting and participating in the conference included Access to Medicines Ireland, the Irish Forum for Global Health (IFGH), Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), Comhlámh, RCSI, and Just Treatment UK.

After each panel, the audience was very engaged in discussion and questions for the panelists. Audience members were interviewed after the event to gather their overall impressions and takeaways from the day:

“I thought that the conference was really informative on an issue that we don’t discuss enough in our master’s of global health course, and it is an issue that is very relevant to us.”

– Lise Carlier, MSc Candidate

“The conference provided eye-opening insights from world-leading experts into the current access to medicines challenges and how we solve them. In a context of escalating drug prices, there is an urgent need to realign scientific progress with societal benefit. For some patients, there is no time to lose in accessing certain medications. This is one of the most urgent global health challenges unfolding. We have a very urgent need to rewire the system and translate our great biomedical discoveries into delivery of health equity.”

– Eimear Duff, MBA Candidate



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