Access to essential medicines is often lacking in low-income countries, yet patents are uncommon in such nations. This suggests that poverty, rather than patents, is the real reason why poor people frequently cannot get the medicines they need, according to a new study.

Just 19 of the 319 medicines on the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Model List of Essential Medicines are patent-protected, according to researcher Amir Attaran of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, who examined the issue in 65 developing nations. Moreover, he also found that the basic patents on two of the 19 drugs were ineffective - the rights to Sanofi-aventis’ eflornithine had been donated to WHO for the common good, while those for tamoxifen, developed by AstraZeneca, had expired.

The typical developing country is likely to have fewer essential medicines under patent or pending application, largely because pharmaceutical manufacturers generally do not seek patents in such nations - even when they legally have the option to do so - because their populations simply do not have the disposable income available to spend on patented medicines, writes Dr Attaran. “With so little revenue at stake, most drug companies decide to forgo patent protection in these countries, and patenting is commonplace only in large, middle-income countries,” he comments.

Moreover, developing nations generally do not have legislation covering patents, or even patent offices, he adds.

The study also discovered that the existence of patents has little or no effect on access to generic versions of essential medicines; in 98.6% of cases examined in the study, there were no patent barriers whatsoever to accessing generic essential drugs.

Dr Attaran concludes that the assumptions made by both the “activist community” - that pharmaceutical patents act as barriers to accessing affordable medicines - and by pharmaceutical companies - that it is necessary to protect intellectual property rights on a global scale in order to fund their R&D - are “patently wrong.”

“Patents cannot cause essential medicines to be inaccessible in ‘many’ developing countries because they do not exist 98.6% of the time; similarly, patents cannot be a ‘global’ necessity of pharmaceutical business because companies forgo them 69% of the time,” he concludes.