23rd July 2015

New life-saving medicines developed for lethal disease such as ebola should be 'a gift to the world' rather than held up by squabbles over intellectual property while victims of the disease are dying, says QUT Professor of IP & Innovation Law Matthew Rimmer.

Professor Rimmer is speaking at the QUT-hosted Biosecurity in a Globalised World conference (27-28 July) at which leading law and global health experts will discuss the International Health Regulations.

Professor Rimmer said the response to the ebola global health crisis last year showed the world had learnt nothing from the SARS outbreak 10 years before.

"The world urgently needs to agree on a new system of research incentives to de-link R&D of new essential medicines from the intellectual property system," Professor Rimmer said.

"SARS caused a patent race between the three independent research agencies that had sequenced the virus. The British Colombia Cancer Agency, the US Centre of Disease Control and the University of Hong Kong all filed for patent rights and the WHO gave little guidance on the issue.

"The patent system on new medicines encourages drug companies to focus on the diseases of the rich.

"As WHO director-general Dr Margaret Chan said: 'a profit-driven industry does not invest in products for markets that cannot pay'.

"The world doesn't need costly, time-consuming patent races such as that which happened over HIV/AIDS which led to hundreds of deaths, nor the development of essential medicines that are too expensive for those most in need of them to buy."

Professor Rimmer said similar controversies over IP, innovation and access to essential medicines took place in the wake of the ebola crisis.

"The incentives related to the IP system for drug development is not working because pharmaceutical companies had not sufficiently advanced their research for testing or treatment of ebola between earlier outbreaks and the major outbreak, which is still not declared over.

"This R&D failure indicates we need a better model to support research on neglected diseases, and quickly.

"It was Medicins Sans Frontieres that saved the day - they had a rapid response to the ebola outbreak sending in doctors and mobile hospitals."

Professor Rimmer said the world's leading expert on ebola and public health crises, Professor Lawrence O. Gostin who is speaking at the conference will call for a reconfiguration of international health law in light of the ebola public health crisis.

"To de-link R&D from the intellectual property process for essential medicines, we need a new patent model to encourage research," he said.

"At the moment the patent system is the winner takes all, but perhaps we could have a prize system. If you discover an ebola vaccine you and your institution gets a monetary reward and then the benefits of the vaccine are quickly shared with all.

"Or, better still, it could be made a 'gift to the world' as Tim Berners-Lee did when he invented the World Wide Web and Marie Curie who did not patent her discovery of the radium-isolation process so that scientists the world over could do further research."

Media contact: Niki Widdowson, QUT media, 07 3138 2999 or n.widdowson@qut.edu.au

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