Patents and the Flu

Reading this AP article about avian flu concerns, I was struck by its discussion of patents:

The drug that seems most effective against bird flu is Tamiflu, which was created to treat ordinary human flu but is now in short supply and can’t be made fast enough because of pandemic fears.

[U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike] Leavitt has been talking with drug and vaccine manufacturers to try to increase the stockpile should a catastrophic outbreak reach North America. The government currently has enough Tamiflu to treat about 4.3 million Americans.

Manufacturing of a new vaccine has just started, and Leavitt said the United States may help finance some of the $100 million production burden.

Earlier this month, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan suggested patent rules might be suspended in an outbreak to allow other companies to make generic forms of Tamiflu, produced by Swiss-based Roche Holding AG. In recent days, a company in India announced plans to do that.

However, Leavitt said the United States supports intellectual property laws that bar such action.

I understand the argument that intellectual property laws incent companies to invest in drug research, and that circumventing those laws could inhibit development of drugs that would ultimately save many lives. It seems absurd, though, not to have a discussion about ways to preserve Roche’s interests while providing against the possibility of a pandemic. I’m disappointed to see Leavitt’s simplistic response. More people died from influenza during the 1918-19 pandemic than died in all of World War I; I’d hope that it would not be patents that would prevent the government from protecting against a future pandemic. The tech world has good reason to complain about software patents, but in comparison, this is far more troubling.

(Popular Power, the company I founded in 2000 with my friend Nelson Minar, worked with influenza researchers on optimizing vaccination strategies, using surplus computer time contributed by individuals around the world. While the company closed in 2001, I’ve paid attention to influenza research ever since, which these days is a daily reading assignment. Even the last novel I read, Wickett’s Remedy by Myla Goldberg (which was excellent), was all about the flu. I was very happy to catch up with Popular Power’s former staff scientist, Dr. Derek Smith (now at Cambridge), while in Amsterdam for EuroOSCon. It has been one of my favorite parts of my career to meet, work with, and become friends with people who do such different — and especially in Derek’s case, so much more meaningful — work than my own. The computer industry provides a great benefit in that our work touches so many other fields and provides such introductions. I’m glad that my current work is introducing me to similarly wonderful people.)