The Washington Post had a major piece that discussed the ethics of efforts to use public pressure to force drug companies to make expensive drugs available to patients at affordable prices. Remarkably it never discussed the role of patent monopolies.

In the case that was the immediate focus of the article, a young boy who was suffering from cancer and seemed likely to benefit from a drug that was still in the experimental stage, it does not appear that patent protection was a major factor. However in many cases patients will face exorbitant prices for a life-saving drug that they may not be able to afford because the drug is subject to patent protection.

In such cases it is the patent that creates the moral dilemma raised in this article. If the drug were sold at its free market price it would likely be affordable to most patients. This is one of the perversities of patent financed drug research. While drugs can be expensive to develop, they are generally cheap to manufacture. It would be desirable for drugs to be sold at their free market price if some alternative mechanism (e.g. NIH funding) could be used to finance their development.

It would have been useful if this piece had discussed the way in which the mechanism we use to finance drug research can lead to the sort of ethical dilemmas it discusses. In this context it is probably worth mentioning that the Washington Post gets considerable revenue from drug company advertising.

Note: Typos corrected, thanks Robert Salzberg.

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