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Philosopher fights for fair drug prices

The University Post meets Thomas Pogge, a philosopher with a utopian yet pragmatic plan to make life-saving drugs against the »diseases of poverty« available to all, at the lowest possible price

The ‘crime’ of extortionate prices for life-saving drugs has an elegant and pragmatic solution, according to Yale philosopher Thomas Pogge.

A ‘Health Impact Fund’ is a »win-win« way to save millions of lives, encourage research into neglected diseases, and keep drug companies content, he says.

Read Thomas Pogge’s comment Making malaria pills profitable here.

At first sight, philosophy and pharmacology appear to be something of an odd couple.

And an international pharmacology conference is not the first most obvious place to meet a professor of philosophy.

But Leitner Fellow in Philosophy and International Affairs, Thomas Pogge, brings the two disciplines together with his brainchild, the Health Impact Fund.

Saving lives at cost price

Speaking at the WorldPharma Congress at Copenhagen’s Bella Center today Tuesday, he describes his vision.

The Health Impact Fund would give pharmaceutical companies financial rewards according to the global health impact of their products.

Registration of new drugs would be voluntary for pharmaceutical companies and they would still be able to retain their patents on the drugs.

On the other hand, the drugs would have to be produced and sold at the lowest possible price, without mark-up, with free licences to reproduce.

Making malaria lucrative

The fund would encourage more research into otherwise neglected and unprofitable medicines for diseases that are rife in developing countries, while keeping prices to an absolute minimum, he says.

And pharmaceutical companies would not lose out financially.

»We wanted to design a structure that would play on peoples’ existing, sometimes self-centered motivations. With this system, it makes sense to do good. There is no reason not to,« explains Thomas Pogge.

The money in the fund would be awarded to new drugs that are based on the good that they do globally. This would be measured statistically, by ‘following’ particular drugs from production to consumption, and by recording user experiences.

The money coming from the fund would be a supplement to their existing (and more lucrative) research into for example hair-loss and obesity.

Getting to be the good guys

And by registering their products, drug companies would get a much-needed image boost.

»It makes sense that weapons manufacturers have a bad reputation, but drug companies should logically be the good guys. They are not. But more involvement in research into tropical diseases could help this,« he points out.

»And in this way they could attract the most young, talented and idealistic researchers. Everyone who goes into this kind of research wants to be the next big hero; the one who finds the cure for some major disease. They won’t win the Nobel prize for curing hair loss!«

Human rights vs. intellectual rights

Thomas Pogge sees current intellectual property laws as »odd« at best, and »criminal« when applied to vital drugs.

»I feel that the TRIPS agreement (international intellectual property law, ed.) is a great crime. It violates the rights of millions of people by cutting them off from vital medicines,« he says.

»It is based on the dubious assertion that ‘I thought of this first, so you can’t copy it.’ That is like saying that because I was the first one to put mushrooms and beef together in one dish, no one else can make that dish unless they pay me. It is odd. And when it concerns important medicine, it is criminal,« he adds.

Individual moral duty

The eradication of disease, poverty and suffering a moral obligation which every individual bears, says Pogge, who is »concerned about the next 500 years of human existence.«

When asked about the moral duty of the individual, he mentions his upbringing in post-war Germany.

»It is comparable to the Nazis who killed millions of people. Even more are dying now, as a result of disease. I am German, and growing up, I held my parents responsible for their actions during the war,« he explains.

»In the same way, you may think that you are just one little Danish citizen. But if you allied yourself with others in the same position and stood up to insist on change, the voices of fifty thousand would not be ignored. It is a question of mobilizing people.«

The bottom line

And just what is the price of »the cure«?

To function, the fund requires USD 6 billion per year, which would be funded by government contributions based on a percentage of the GNP.

The taxpayers in the individual countries would get this money back in the form of lower drug prices.

Private contributions would be welcomed. But would not provide enough stability to reassure drug companies planning lengthy and expensive research and development projects.

Read more about the Health Impact Fund here.

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