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Balanced Fare: We Report, You Deride

Tuesday, January 07, 2003

Who Do You Support, Cows Or Humans?

A fascinating guest editorial in today's WSJ by Carl Bildt, the former prime minister of Sweden. His theme is that protection of intellectual property is critical to the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa and developing nations:

...There is clearly an urgent need to expand access to life saving drugs in the world's poorest nations. A waiver mechanism would facilitate the grant of compulsory licenses for export and offer poor countries the flexibility they might need to achieve this goal. But negotiators in Geneva must remember that expanding access to existing medicines is not a sustainable option. As much as 99% of essential drugs are already in the public domain in Africa. Innovation is an equally critical part of the equation.

The challenge we face today is not only to get existing therapies to patients but also to encourage a steady stream of new medicines. The fact is that development of new and better medicines will depend upon whether the international community maintains the stability of an intellectual property system that rewards the development of these medicines. Private sector risk taking and investment generated those innovative medicines that today save countless millions of lives around the world. And investment will be the key to developing a new generation of innovative AIDS treatments that work against increasingly resistant strains of the virus, or, even better, a vaccine.

Moreover, patents and other "tools" of the intellectual property system stimulate technology transfer, investment and economic growth. And, even more important in the long term, we should not forget that they spur and reward local creativity and innovation. The software industry in India achieved world-class status after improvements were made to its copyright regime. And Brazil and China have experienced vast increases in pharmaceutical sector investment following improvements to patent laws. Over time, there is no reason why Africa should be different.

Sorry, I promised something on "cows". Mr. Bildt goes on to explain his belief that economic development is the best public health prescription. European, US, and Japanese agricultural subsidies to domestic farm interests inhibit third world growth, as we have heard before. And he closes with this sound-bite:

A long-term solution will require the U.S. and EU to liberalize their markets and help developing countries onto a path of sustainable economic growth. It remains truly shameful that the EU subsidizes every cow with $2.40 every day -- which is more than three-quarters of the population of sub-Saharan Africa have to try to live on.

When you put it that way - ouch! Of course, the subsidy goes to the farmer, not the cow. Europe is not (I hope) trying to assure that these cows live in comfort and plenty - but it is still a lovely sound-bite.

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