Patents have been criticized in the developing world, as they are thought to reduce access to existing medicines. Reconciling patents and universal access to medicine would require an efficient international policy of price discrimination. Moreover, under the TRIPS agreement of the World Trade Organization, countries must allow pharmaceutical products to be patented. In 2001, the WTO adopted the Doha Declaration, which indicates that the TRIPS agreement should be read with the goals of public health in mind, and allows some methods for circumventing pharmaceutical monopolies: via compulsory licensing or parallel imports, even before patent expiration.

In March 2001, 40 multi-national pharmaceutical companies brought litigation against South Africa for its Medicines Act, which allowed the generic production of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) for treating HIV, despite the fact that these drugs were on-patent. HIV was and is an epidemic in South Africa, and ARVs at the time cost between 10,000 and 15,000 USD per patient per year. This was unaffordable for most South African citizens, and so the South African government committed to providing ARVs at prices closer to what people could afford. To do so, they would need to ignore the patents on drugs and produce generics within the country (using a compulsory license), or import them from abroad. After international protest in favour of public health rights (including the collection of 250,000 signatures by MSF), the governments of several developed countries (including The Netherlands, Germany, France, and later the US) backed the South African government, and the case was dropped in April of that year.

In 2016, GlaxoSmithKline (the worlds 6th largest Pharmaceutical) announced that it would be dropping its patents in poor countries so as to allow independent companies to make and sell versions of its drugs in those areas, thereby widening the public access to them. GlaxoSmithKline published a list of 50 countries they would no longer hold patents in, affecting 1 billion people worldwide.

Charitable programs

In 2011 four of the top 20 corporate charitable donations and eight of the top 30 corporate charitable donations came from pharmaceutical manufacturers. The bulk of corporate charitable donations (69% as of 2012) comes by way of non-cash charitable donations, the majority of which again were donations contributed by pharmaceutical companies. Some of those large pharmaceutical companies are “patient assistance” foundations, providing financial support to individuals in purchasing prescription medicines, but pharmaceutical companies are also huge givers of in-kind products, i.e. presumably their own drugs. Non-cash donations of product can be “profit maximizing…as part of an inventory control issue when they have excess inventories” for some corporations, says Patrick Rooney of Giving USA in an interview with Nonprofit Quarterly.

Charitable programs and drug discovery & development efforts by pharmaceutical companies include:

  • “Merck’s Gift”, wherein billions of river blindness drugs were donated in Africa
  • Pfizer’s gift of free/discounted fluconazole and other drugs for AIDS in South Africa
  • GSK’s commitment to give free albendazole tablets to the WHO for, and until, the elimination of lymphatic filariasis worldwide.
  • In 2006, Novartis committed US$755 million in corporate citizenship initiatives around the world, particularly focusing on improving access to medicines in the developing world through its Access to Medicine projects, including donations of medicines to patients affected by leprosy, tuberculosis, and malaria; Glivec patient assistance programs; and relief to support major humanitarian organisations with emergency medical needs.