Technical brief |

Lethal monopolies - How pharma games the patent system to maximise profits

Photograph by Peter Bauza

Today if you invent something, you can get a monopoly in the form of a patent which allows you to protect your product from competition from other producers for a set period of time. 

In exchange the inventor must disclose exactly how to recreate the claimed invention so that eventually other producers can make the product for the benefit of society.

This monopoly is meant to allow inventors to recoup the cost of their investment in creating the product. More practically it allows manufacturers to keep product prices high by shutting out price-lowering competition from other manufacturers.

There are rules about what qualifies for such profitable monopoly protection and what does not. General rules are set by the World Trade Organization, but they are implemented in different ways by individual countries. 

The pharmaceutical industry has devoted quite some energy and resources (just count the numbers of lawyers in companies ostensibly created to make medicines) to finding ways to exploit this system of monopoly protection, and  to game the rules in such a way to maximise their profits.

In this pamphlet we explore how pharma has learnt to game the patent system through investigating a case study; the monopolies that Gilead has built around the hepatitis C drug, sofosbuvir. 

This example relates to patents granted by the European Patent Office (EPO). But these kind of abuses are ubiqitous. We conclude with a series of recommendations the EPO should adopt to ensure that it does not grant potentially lethal monopolies on lifesaving medicines.