Say Yes to Drugs, Harvard

This week, it seems that drug pushers have infiltrated the Harvard campus. Boldly sporting “Say Yes to Drugs” shirts, their attire suggests that the elementary school program Drug Abuse Resistance Education has an expiration date. But these students don’t want pot or cocaine; they want global access to life-saving medications. The organization Universities Allied for Essential Medicines estimates that 10 million people die each year from curable diseases simply because they cannot afford the medicine they need. In solidarity with those who suffer, the students aim to attack the root of this problem.

After obtaining patents, Harvard licenses a number of the technologies it develops in its labs, such as organic compounds, vaccines, and diagnostics, to biotech and pharmaceutical companies for development into finished products. At present, there is no institutionalized mechanism to guarantee that drugs created from university research can be produced generically. Allowing generic production breaks the temporary monopoly a pharmaceutical company holds on a product that is guaranteed by its patent. With more companies able to produce a product, free-market competition drives down its price, and as its cost decreases, more people gain access to the drug. At present, unless a Harvard scientist takes special initiative to include clauses that promote global access in the license of her compound, she essentially relinquishes control over the future of her research at the time of licensing. After this point, the pharmaceutical company has free reign over the cost of the drug, and global access is rarely a priority.

This system must change. Without a standardized means to require generic production of certain technologies, Harvard effectively endorses the needless death and suffering of millions of people in the developing world. Instead, when it licenses a compound to a biotech or pharmaceutical company, the university should mandate that the drug created from that compound be allowed to be produced generically in developing countries, a move that would inherently lower the drug’s price.

According to Berkeley Law School Professor Amy Kapczynzki, enabling generic production would have minimal financial impact on universities and pharmaceutical companies. For example, in 2002, Africa comprised only 1.3 percent of the world pharmaceutical market, and Southeast Asia, China, and the Indian subcontinent comprised 6.7 percent. These markets are so small that the profits rendered from them are insignificant, indicating that, at essentially no cost to the university, Harvard can make a groundbreaking step toward reducing the cost of essential medicines in poor countries and set an example for other universities to follow.

Saying yes to drugs means institutionalizing a policy that recognizes access to medicines and health-related technologies for all as the primary purpose of development of health-related technology—that implements a system of technology development that ensures patients have access to the final end product they need, such as formulated pills or vaccines. It is systematic in its approach, sufficiently transparent to verify its effectiveness, and based on explicit metrics that measure the success of technology transfer by its impact on access and continued innovation; that removes legal barriers to generic production of Harvard technologies in resource-limited countries, using proactive licensing provisions to ensure that barriers such as follow-on patents and data exclusivity cannot be used to block such production.

As a world-leading research institution, Harvard is obligated to use the fruits of its labs to benefit those in need, regardless of their ability to pay. Harvard should measure the value of its research not by its profits but by the number of people whose lives it saves.


Jillian L. Irwin ’11 is a social and cognitive neuroscience concentrator in Dudley House and Molly R. Siegel ’10 is a history and science concentrator in Quincy House. They are members of the Harvard College Global Health and AIDS Coalition, the Harvard College chapter of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines.

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