When Ethics and Business Clash

When doing strategic planning it is very important to be able to identify beacons that can be spotted early on that would indicate significant change is coming to a market.  Obviously, those that can see the change coming earlier than others can predict that change, react to it and either avoid catastrophe or prosper from the new environment.  One of those beacons shot up like a comet recently in India.  Their highest court refused to recognize a Gleevec patent argument, which allowed the generic version to be sold at a fraction of the cost of the brand name product.  The patent claim was denied on various different legal technicalities, but that is really not all that important.  The bottom line is they figured out a way to choose for their people, who couldn’t afford the incredibly high cost for this life saving treatment, rather than to continue to support the drug company.

Before forming an opinion on this case, read carefully the article from The Atlantic and imagine you were asked to rule on the case.  What would you have ruled?  Show the article to five friends outside the pharmaceutical industry and see what they think about the ruling.  Ask what they would have done if they were judges in India.  What we are faced with is perhaps the most difficult moral/ethical decision we face as an industry.  It is the need to balance profits with providing life-saving drugs to as many people as possible.  It is incredibly complex and gut wrenching at the same time.  The work done by ethicists is not simple and requires an incredible amount of analysis and debate.  These are not simple problems. There are no “easy” answers. This is where innovation, creativity and imagination need to kick in to help solve these issues.  This is a beacon of what is to come and we must recognize it as such.

Don’t think that this issue is just a “developing” world problem.  The Supreme Court in our country is deliberating the Myriad Genetics case where they are trying to determine if their DNA patents are truly valid.  Can something like this actually be patentable?  Again this will be fought on legal technicalities, but the real issue is should women be charged $3,000 for a breast cancer screening test, that could be done for less than $200 by many labs in the country?  Their highly predictive look at gene mutations could provide a critical early sign for a huge number of women and this could lead to life saving early care.  Right now it is only available for those with $3,000 to spend.  Ask your same five friends what they think of this case and how would they rule if they were on the Court?

This blog is not about answers, but rather about opening up thinking to every aspect of the issue.  Our industry survives on inventions and intellectual property.  Not allowing patents to hold would lead to chaos and eventual shutting down of research in our industry and most other high technology fields.  Developing drugs, and other healthcare therapies, is incredibly expensive and there must be return on the investment.  On the other hand, it is not morally right to allow people to die just because they can’t afford to support and pay for this research.  It is important to also note Andrew Witty’s (GSK CEO) comment on the inflated number we put on the cost of drug discovery because of the inefficiencies in the industry.  All of these matters need to be considered when trying to determine what is right or wrong.

If there is a personal conclusion it would have to do with having these cases tried in the courts.  When things end up in court it usually shows a failure of some kind within the overall system.  These issues should be worked out within the market by people trying to assure real sustainability for the system rather than just allowing the courts to decide the fate of the industry or the fate of those we rely on to keep our business going.  These are real issues that require much time and thought and go to the core of what we are all about.

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