Where does innovation come from?

Drug manufacturers think it comes from protecting profits. No doubt this leads to the development of drugs that can be patented – tweaking an existing drug usually does the trick with minimal effort. But the Indian courts have ruled that tweaking an existing drug does not create a new drug that merits a patent. And India is the capital of the world for cheap drugs.

So the drug companies will have to work on things that are really different. Innovation is needed in treatments for the diseases of the poor, such as TB and malaria and for ‘orphan drugs’ that have a small number of users.  And we will all need new antibiotics when the over-use of the current ones causes them to fail. The problem for the pharmaceutical companies is that these areas are not always profitable.

While there have been innovative attempts to develop treatments in some of these areas, many have been premised mainly on extending financial protection in some way. A more radical approach to health is needed, beyond patentable drugs.

In the end, real innovation comes from opening up, not from closing down and protecting.

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