The World Trade Organization and its recent agreement to protect intellectual property rights have been strongly criticized for limiting people's access to medicine. By protecting pharmaceutical patents, the agreement allows drug companies to charge prices that are far beyond the reach of the world's poor. For example, it costs $15,000 a year to keep an AIDS patient alive- an amount equal to 24 times the average annual income in Zimbabwe. Considering one out of four adults in Zimbabwe is HIV-positive, one can begin to comprehend the seriousness of the problem.
However, critics of the World Trade Organization are not fully aware of what the new property rights agreement achieves. By assuring that pharmaceutical companies receive the income they need in order to conduct research, the agreement helps provide the nearly $500 million necessary to develop a single new drug. The agreement also improves access to drugs by restricting certain patent rights. For example, patent holders must now disclose their inventions, which allows other researchers to push the frontiers of drug knowledge faster and further.
lf the patent holder is deemed to overcharge for its products, governments are authorized to license the patent to other companies or even use the patent themselves. One outcome of this new flexibility is that drugs could eventually be priced more cheaply in poor countries. However, care would have to be taken to assure that these cheaper drugs did not return to wealthier countries to compete with the more expensive drugs there.
Another problem facing developing countries is the lack of research into, and effective treatments for, diseases that affect their large economically disadvantaged populations. Pharmaceutical companies don not find it profitable to develop drugs specifically for this market. In fact, only 10 % of the world's research funds go toward fighting the diseases that affect 90 % of the world's population, Clearly, more needs to be done to provide incentives for companies to develop new drugs for diseases mere common among the poor.