Research Locally, Diffuse Globally? American Universities, Patents and Global Public Health

Article excerpt

An important challenge in sustainable development is promoting the creation of new medical technologies and ensuring their diffusion in developing countries. There is growing concern that, with the implementation of the World Trade Organization's agreement on Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs), pharmaceutical patents will restrict access to medicines globally. Profit-oriented companies are now aggressively pursuing intellectual property protections in developing countries, many of which had previously not allowed product patents on drugs. The concern is that absent generic competition, patients will not be able to access life-saving medications. Recent attention has focused on a perhaps unlikely set of actors to help ameliorate the access to medicines problem: American research universities. A decade-old student movement has argued that universities own intellectual property rights on many important drugs, and has pushed for inclusion of "humanitarian licensing" clauses that would compel the pharmaceutical firms that license these technologies to allow generic access in developing countries. In this paper, I discuss the emergence and evolution of this student movement, and the set of patent policy changes that got us here. I also summarize data on the feasibility of these policies: for how many drugs would changes in university policies plausibly affect access? Next, I discuss the desirability of changing university licensing practices and the tradeoffs universities face when considering humanitarian licensing approaches. I conclude with a discussion of the limits of campus-level initiatives alone, and the potentially important role for research funding agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, in promoting humanitarian licensing and access to medicines.


Over the past decade, global public health has been identified as a crucial driver of sustainable human development. Yet marshaling collective action toward global health goals is difficult, since the developing world lacks the resources to do so and taxpayers in developed countries traditionally have been anemic in providing financial support for this purpose.

In the face of these difficulties, recent attention has focused on a potentially useful role for U.S. universities in promoting global public health. For example, Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, has argued that, relative to private sector actors, universities are less myopic, less motivated by commercial interest, more cosmopolitan and, therefore, better suited to play a central role in the advancement of global public health. (1) Optimism that universities can help promote global health finds support in history: U.S. universities have a long and storied record of rising to address important social and economic challenges. They were integral in promoting agricultural development in the 19th century; in developing indigenous American chemical and engineering industries in the early 20th century; and most famously perhaps, in advancing U.S. research efforts during the Second World War. (2) In the postwar era, universities have had an important role in biomedical research, including in the war on cancer and in drug development. Sachs suggests that "the challenge today is to extend such local actions to global problems, with universities taking on the challenges in other parts of the world." (3) U.S. universities appear to be rising to this challenge; university activity in the global health arena has grown dramatically over the past decade. Dr. Michael Merson, director of the Duke Global Health Institute based at Duke University, recently suggested that 270 U.S. academic institutions had some sort of global health program, of which seventy had global health centers. (4)

Academic institutions might contribute to global health through numerous channels, including training, research and development (R&D), and program evaluation and delivery. …