Modern-day wizards in the laboratories of the world's pharmaceutical companies should take a day off from tending their test tubes and concoct a new word for 'profit'. It is needed because the existing word has been demonised to the point at which Western businessmen hardly dare utter it in public.
At the World Trade Organisation in Geneva this week, a consortium of anti-globalisation pressure groups and well-meaning scientists launched their latest attack in the war against profit. They accuse Western pharmaceutical companies of condemning millions of Africans to an unpleasant death by opposing the production and distribution of cheap anti-retroviral drugs used to treat Aids. The protesters' argument is this: Aids victims in poor countries cannot afford the expensive drugs produced under patent by Western pharmaceutical companies. Therefore, Western drugs companies should surrender their patents and allow pharmaceutical companies in the Third World to manufacture and distribute cheap, generic versions of the drug.
Typifying the output of the cheap Aids drug lobby, John Sulston, founder director of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, wrote in the Guardian this week: 'This Aids drug thing is simple. It's a chance to dip our well-fed toes in the water, by actually using our collective discoveries and inventions to benefit humanity.' Sulston shared the Nobel prize for medicine last year, but it is unlikely he will be appearing on the shortlist for the Nobel prize for economics. Two years ago, the World Trade Organisation gave Third World governments permission to ignore international law on patents in the case of life-saving drugs for use within their own countries. The result has been predictable: while some of the generic drugs have been getting through to their intended users, others have been diverted to Western markets by the bandit regimes which control a fair part of Africa.
In spite of this, Sulston et al. want the World Trade Organisation to go further. They are demanding that pharmaceutical companies in India and Brazil be allowed to export cheap generic drugs to other Third World countries. Such a trade would undoubtably increase the availability of anti-retroviral drugs in Africa, but it would do so at a price. It would become impossible to prevent the smuggling of generic drugs to the West, thereby destroying the market for the companies which spent vast sums of money developing the drugs.
The likes of Sulston do not appear to believe this matters. Pharmaceutical companies, he argues, 'spend only some 15 per cent of their budget on research and development'. Fifteen per cent of a multi-billion-dollar budget, he might just concede, is still an awful lot of money. It is not uncommon these days for a new drug to cost £1bn in research. There is only one way a private company can raise such cash: from investors risking their money in the hope of sharing the profits if the drug proves successful. Sulston makes great play of the fact that his institute is non-profit-making, and wonders why other research bodies cannot operate in the same way. Yet the Wellcome Trust only exists thanks to an endowment set up in the will of a 19th-century pill manufacturer - who didn't grow rich by letting others produce his patented medicines for free.
Nobody doubts that Aids in Africa is a tragedy of immense proportions. In Malawi, we learn, 15 per cent of the population is infected with the virus. It would be callous if the developed world were not engaged in efforts to eradicate the virus. But it doesn't follow that the pharmaceutical companies which are responsible for the few glimmers of hope should be expected to engage singlehandedly in a multi-billion-dollar act of charity - for that is what the surrender of patents would amount to. Western governments can, of course, buy patented anti-retroviral drugs and send them to the affected countries to which the US has already promised £15bn to fight Aids. On the other hand, if you are a small Western country without a sizeable pharmaceutical industry of your own, it is far cheaper to demand that greedy bosses of American drugs companies foot the bill for treating Aids in Africa than to ask your own taxpayers to contribute their share.
Protecting the patent rights of pharmaceutical companies, says John Sulston, is the 'short-termist' thinking of a world obsessed with profits and balance sheets. The opposite is true. To destroy the patent system - which in the case of medicines allows the registered inventor of a drug 20 years' worth of rights - will mean more anti-retroviral drugs for Africa. But anti-retroviral drugs are a treatment, not a cure; as Robert Baker argued in these pages recently, they can do more harm than good when not used with great discipline. It is probable that one day a vaccine will be developed which will banish Aids in the same way as smallpox. But it will only be developed if there remains an incentive for drugs companies to do so.
If the patent system for Aids drugs is destroyed, wise companies will switch their research resources to less controversial drugs like wrinkle creams, where profit-making is still allowed. That will be good news for greying Western consumers, but it will do nothing to avert human tragedy in Africa.