As manufacturers seek to expand and compete in a tough global economy and grow good-paying American jobs, one of the biggest challenges they face is the worldwide threat to innovation and intellectual property rights. By some estimates, the theft of U.S. ideas and inventions has cost the U.S. economy $300 billion, undermining jobs throughout the country. Just when manufacturers thought it couldn't get worse, the United Nations is now preparing to undertake a frontal attack not only on manufacturers' essential IP rights but also on the ability of our industries to solve the world's global health challenges.
We can all agree that the global healthcare situation is dire, with one-third of the world's population unable to access "essential medicines," as defined by the World Health Organization. In some of the poorest countries, half of the population lacks access.
Unfortunately, the search for real solutions does not appear to be the focus of high-level U.N. officials heading into this week's World Health Assembly in Geneva. To the contrary, building on activist efforts to falsely brand IP protections — patents, for example — as a barrier to health care access, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon convened a special panel in November 2015 to solve, in his words, the "policy incoherence" between IP laws and "international human rights ... and public health." This false framing — pitting innovators against patients — is perilously misleading and a threat to both meeting global healthcare needs and growing the innovative manufacturing that is vital for economic growth and jobs.
Thousands of life-saving treatments and cures are available today, thanks in large part to research and development investments made by biopharmaceutical manufacturers. Between 1988 and 2005, 91 percent of available medicines were produced by the private sector — and with no direct government role. IP protection is a critical pillar to such innovation, as it is to all types of manufacturers, big and small.
The research, development, production and deployment of complex and promising new health technologies — biologics for example — involve more risk and require more capital investment. IP protections are more important than ever to incentivize these other costly investments; if expensive discoveries, in pharmaceuticals or other research-intensive industries, can be copied or stolen, then those investments are lost — along with the manufacturing jobs those products support.
Innovators, governments and patients all agree on the need to have more products and technologies reach those with the greatest need. But IP rights and the private-sector innovation system are not the root cause of the problem — just an easy scapegoat for those unwilling or unable to tackle the larger challenges. Of those products defined by the WHO as "essential medicines" — that is, urgently needed by the world's poorest and most vulnerable countries — fully 95 percent are off-patent and no longer subject to IP protections.
So what is the real problem? Experience and data show that the real barriers are complex. In low-income countries, the biggest barriers limiting access to healthcare and health technologies are lack of infrastructure and human resources. For example, a 2013 WHO report found a shortfall of more than 7 million health care workers worldwide and projected that number to rise to 13 million by 2035. Some countries also maintain high import tariffs and other trade-related barriers that hamper access to medicines, while devoting less than 1 percent of GDP to strengthening public health delivery systems.
These are the problems the U.N. should be tackling. If the anti-IP factions succeed, these issues will continue to be ignored, while an attack is waged on intellectual property, which would limit access to and undermine the global innovation of life-changing technologies across many manufacturing industries.
While today's focus is on the biopharmaceutical sector, weakening IP protections threaten all manufacturing and its ability to address global challenges, from new environmental technologies to products that provide greater access to clean water or improve sustainable food production and storage. The consequences are serious and would have a ripple effect that could devastate manufacturing communities and worker opportunities throughout the United States and other parts of the world. In the United States, manufacturing supports more than 18 million jobs and contributes more than $2 trillion to the economy. We cannot afford to put the backbone of the U.S. economy at risk.
As global health leaders gather in Geneva, they should base their search for solutions on actual experience and fact. Manufacturing and the innovation and IP rights that foster it are critical to addressing our world's greatest challenges and to improving the human condition and should be fostered, not shattered.
Linda Dempsey is Vice President, International Economic Affairs at the National Association of Manufacturers. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.