Imagine that you are suffering from an incurable disease, which slowly wastes away your body and leads inevitably to death. One day, a scientist working with a pharmaceutical company discovers a drug that vastly increases your chance of survival. Do you:
A) offer him medals and awards and hail him as a benefactor of humanity.
B) quietly pay him for the drug and get well.
C) club him over the head and steal his invention.
The government of Brazil has just chosen option C.
Invoking a law that permits the government to violate drug patents in cases of “national emergency,” Brazil declared that it will steal the formula for Viracept (also known as nelfinavir), a drug used to fight AIDS. The “national emergency” is that the drug’s manufacturer only agreed to drop next year’s price by 13 percent. Brazil’s Health Ministry wants to spend a few millions less; hence the “emergency” and the theft.
In a typical exercise in blaming the victim, it is the drug’s manufacturer, Swiss-based Hoffman-LaRoche, that is being condemned for its “greed.”
This is just the beginning of a worldwide trend. Other poor nations, especially in Africa, are expected to follow Brazil’s lead, seizing the formulas of patented drugs and making pirated knock-offs. These countries have been shaking down American pharmaceutical companies for more than a year, demanding cuts in overseas drug prices, and wielding, as their “bargaining” leverage, the threat of stealing the patents. The drug companies — responding with the short-range, pragmatic politics typical of today’s businessmen — have largely caved in to the demands, discounting prices by as much as 60 percent. That hasn’t mollified Third World governments; instead, it has emboldened them to engage in further extortion.
Brazil’s health minister, Jose Serra, claims that the theft of Viracept is justified by humanitarianism, claiming “we must insist that lives come before profits.”
But notice what triggered this campaign of pharmaceutical expropriation: the fact that drug companies have succeeded in developing an effective treatment for AIDS. About a dozen compounds, including Viracept, are mixed in “drug cocktails,” and their combined effect significantly reduces mortality rates. Thanks to these drugs, the number of AIDS deaths in Brazil has dropped by two-thirds over the past four years.
To produce something of value, today, is to become a target. Create a computer operating system that everyone wants to use, and your company will be hauled into court and carved into pieces. Develop a treatment for AIDS, and it will be stolen — openly, legally, to the world’s applause.
The evil of this theft lies partly in its deadly practical consequences. In seeking to choke off the drug companies’ profits, Brazil and its brethren are in fact choking off lives. When they eliminate the profits earned from one life-saving drug, they destroy the incentive to create new drugs. The world is clamoring for an even more effective treatment for AIDS, and for a vaccine to prevent its spread. But why should anyone invest time and money in finding these medicines and guiding them through expensive clinical trials — when they know that the moment they achieve success, their product will be seized?
This is just one aspect of a deeper injustice. The message sent by Viracept’s theft goes beyond any mere economic incentive; it is a message about a society’s moral priorities. To seize the patent on a life-saving drug is to punish its creators. It is to deny their right to the value of what they have created. It says to scientists, inventors and businessmen: If you produce something of value to mankind, you will get nothing but threats and condemnation in return.
This moral inversion is all the more dramatic because Viracept is used to treat AIDS, the current disease celebre. Everyone says they are desperately seeking a cure for this syndrome, that preventing AIDS deaths is a top priority of public policy. One would assume, by this standard, that someone who offers an effective treatment would be regarded as a hero. But what happens instead? Exactly what is being done to the producers of Viracept.
The U.S. government needs to take a stand for the patent rights of its citizens. It needs to put an immediate stop to Brazil’s destructive policy of looting the scientists and innovators whom they depend on to produce life-saving drugs. But to do that, we need to reverse our own moral priorities — we need to understand how lives depend on the freedom to make profits.