NCGS, a clinical research organization based in Charleston, is building a new headquarters by the aquarium. The expansion will bring $10 million in new investments and 80 new jobs to the downtown area.
Unfortunately, NCGS's fate -- and the fate of other research firms across the state -- could be in jeopardy if the United Nations continues with its plan to weaken intellectual property laws. Strong patent protections encourage companies to invest in medical research and development. Stripping firms of these protections would hurt patients and workers alike.
The UN believes that weaker IP protections would make medicines cheaper, and therefore more accessible to patients worldwide.
Last fall, the UN High-Level Panel on Access to Medicines issued several policy recommendations, including an encouragement for developing countries to steal medicine patents and produce cheap knock-offs. The UN's World Health Organization hosted the World Health Assembly in May 2017 in Geneva, where non-profit organizations and some nations tried to weaken IP laws and manipulate drug prices.
There are many obstacles to treatment access in developing countries -- intellectual property laws just aren't one of them. Ninety-five percent of medicines deemed essential by the WHO aren't patent-protected.
In fact, a study shared on the WHO website explicitly states that patents "pose no barrier" to drug access and affordability. Instead, the study shows that obstacles such as corruption and a lack of infrastructure restrict access to medicines in developing nations.
By protecting the rights of those inventing new drugs, IP laws foster innovation and actually improve access to medicines worldwide.
Producing new medical treatments is a risky investment. Just one in 5,000 developing drugs makes it from the lab, through regulatory approval, and into patients' hands. If one does make it all the way to market, the price tag for total research and development comes out to a hefty $2.6 billion, on average.
IP laws grant companies a limited period of time to sell their products without competition. That allows them to earn back their enormous development costs. Without this protection, no company would invest in research, since a competitor could freeload off its investment and then make a cheap knockoff.
Thanks to strong IP protections, the United States is a world leader in biopharmaceutical innovation. American patients can try state-of-the-art therapies more easily than they can elsewhere. The United States has 174 clinical trials per million residents -- about five times as many trials per capita as Europeans have access to, according to the Milken Institute's calculations. Biopharmaceutical research companies have conducted more than 3,200 clinical trials in South Carolina in the past two decades.
In addition to saving lives, this research boosts the Palmetto State's economy. Since 2011, the state's life sciences sector has created over 2,300 new jobs. Local firms export upwards of $1.5 billion of medical products.
If the UN succeeds in weakening IP protections abroad, and if the U.S. government cannot protect the interests of U.S. manufacturers and jobs at international institutions, then companies would have fewer opportunities to earn revenue overseas. That would reduce their incentives to innovate. The sector's growth could slow -- or even reverse. And firms like Nephron Pharmaceuticals, which recently announced its intent to relocate to South Carolina, could be forced to nix expansion plans and scale back operations.
Patients' lives depend on maintaining strong IP rights. If the UN and WHO want to help patients in developing nations gain access to medicines, they should focus on improving health infrastructure. Targeting IP laws would impede medical progress and South Carolina's economic growth.
Lewis Gossett is president and CEO of the S.C. Manufacturers Alliance.