Austria Shouldn't Support Weakened Patent Protections
Austria has become a major producer and exporter of medicines. Today, Austria's pharmaceutical industry is the 12th largest in Europe. It adds an estimated €9.6 billion to our economy and supports more than 60,000 jobs.
Unfortunately, a United Nations panel recently proposed several policies that would undermine Austria's drug industry, thereby harming the economy and decreasing access to medications across Europe and the developing world. The Austrian government ought to speak out against the panel's foolhardy recommendations. Its silence seems like tacit support.
The UN High-Level Panel on Access to Medicines was launched in 2015 with the stated objective of "remedying the policy incoherence between the justifiable rights of inventors, international human rights law, trade rules and public health."
That narrow mission presupposes that patent protections, which temporarily prevent the introduction of cheap generic drugs, are to blame for the developing world's lack of access to medications.
Predictably, the UN HLP released a series of recommendations to weaken intellectual property protections, with a goal of "[delinking] the costs of research and development from end prices." Panelists envision a future in which private companies no longer spearhead medical research. Instead, a global bureaucratic organization would oversee medical research and development. 
Such a future would be disastrous for workers in Austria and patients in the developing world. Weakening intellectual property protections would stifle medical research and, ironically, reduce access to medicines.
Imagine what would happen if the UN HLP gets its way. A leading pharmaceutical company invests billions of euros to develop new treatments for heart disease, a condition that causes nearly 24 percent of deaths in Austria and 31 percent of deaths worldwide. The research is successful and after years of hard work, the company receives regulatory approval for a new drug. But because of newly weakened patent protections, other companies take the original formula, create knock-off medicines, and sell them across the world.
In such a world, companies would soon stop investing in research, which is enormously expensive. Companies often spend upwards of €2 billion to develop one drug that gains regulatory approval.
If the UN Panel succeeds in its goal of divorcing medical prices from the cost of research and development, researchers will struggle to recoup their costs. The rate of pharmaceutical research would slow. Jobs would be lost.
Weakening intellectual property rights wouldn't even improve access to medicines in the developing world. Ninety-five percent of the medicines on the World Health Organization's list of essential medicines are already off-patent.
Many countries and organizations have criticized the panel's recommendations.
The International Council of Biotech Associations, which represents thousands of research companies, explains that the panel failed to consider other factors that affect global access to medicine, such as poor health infrastructure.
The United States likewise felt that the panel's mandate was too "narrow" and urged the UN Secretary-General to "reconsider the panel's work." France stated that the panel's views seemed "biased" and did not take into account the "multiple issues" surrounding access to medicine. The former UN Secretary General Ban, who had asked for the report, never endorsed its findings.
Austria, however, was not among the nations to rebuke the panel's recommendations.
Improving access to affordable medications is a noble cause and one the United Nations should not abandon. But the Austrian government must encourage the UN to find another way -- one that stimulates research, provides vulnerable patients with new medicines, and protects Austrian jobs.