For the good of the nation

GlaxoSmithKline’s patent pledge turned a lot of heads. Vice president David Rosenberg explains why the bold step was taken

GlaxoSmithKline’s (GSK) recently announced a pledge to stop seeking patent protection for its drugs in least developed and low-income countries and to offer licences in lower middle income countries were bold moves at a time when big pharma is losing a lot of protection on important revenue generators. The company also committed its future portfolio of cancer treatments to patent pooling, and promised to make its portfolio more transparent.

GSK said the patent pledge reflected “a deep commitment to improving healthcare by developing innovative new medicines and widening access to them around the world”.

“Over the past eight years, the company has taken steps in a number of areas including tiered pricing, healthcare infrastructure building, data-sharing and innovative partnerships.”

GSK’s pledge is important. “We have a responsibility to think carefully about how to deploy our IP,” says vice president for corporate IP policy, David Rosenberg.

“Expanding our graduated approach to patents and intellectual property to widen access to medicines in the world’s poorest countries is a natural evolution and manifestation of our commitment to helping patients access the care they need.”

“Intellectual property protection is a vital part of healthcare innovation, providing necessary incentives for investment in research to create treatments which can help people around the world.”

“However, being flexible with intellectual property is one way we can help address some of the most pressing access challenges while preserving the ability to innovate on a sustainable basis.”

Alongside this pledge, GSK committed future portfolios of cancer treatments to the UN-backed public health organisation the Medicines Patent Pool (MPP). GSK would be one of the first to undertake an approach to oncology within the MPP, which has already been successful in accelerating HIV, tuberculosis and hepatitis C medicines in developing and middle-income countries.

Rosenberg explains: “Expanding this approach to oncology would facilitate generic versions of GSK’s next generation immuno-oncology and epigenetic therapies, currently in clinical development, to be made available in least developed countries, low income countries and certain middle income countries, if and when they receive regulatory approval.”

Of course, GSK’s entire patenting strategy does not revolve around abandoning entire markets, or giving away licences for free. Intellectual property protection is a driving force behind pharmaceutical development and innovations need to be protected to ensure the necessary incentives exist to continue investment in research and development.

“Intellectual property protection stimulates and fundamentally underpins continued research and development for medicines to address diseases now and in the future. It enables us to take on the cost and risk of pharmaceutical development to create new treatments for people around the world,” Rosenberg says.

UK can depend on GSK

Another party that will be grateful for GSK’s support is the UK. Following the UK’s decision to quit the EU in June, GSK took the surprising step of announcing further investment in the jurisdiction, stating that it was “a testament to our skilled UK workforce and the country’s leading position in life sciences that we are making these investments in advanced manufacturing here”.

“From their manufacture in the UK, many of these medicines will be sent to patients around the world,” said GSK.

The UK’s attractiveness as a jurisdiction for big pharma is due in large part to the Patent Box initiative, a tax relief system for research and development based on patenting. GSK pinpointed it as a reason to continue investing in the UK following the so-called Brexit vote in June, despite many commentators arguing that a decision to leave the EU would see corporations abandon the jurisdiction en masse.

GSK’s Rosenberg says that the Patent Box “effectively incentivises research activity.”

“Since its introduction—along with other features of the UK’s increasingly competitive fiscal environment—it has facilitated our policy of centralising pharmaceutical IP ownership in the UK,” he adds.

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