UN Secretary’s Report Hits Close to Home for Minnesota Med Tech

By Patrick Rosenstiel

For many Minnesotans, the business of the United Nations may seem worlds away. With this in mind, it is no surprise that many probably did not hear about the UN Secretary General’s Panel on Access to Medicine and its accompanying report, which was released in mid-September. The purpose of this panel was an important one. Their goal was to understand how lifesaving improvements in medicine, including pharmaceuticals and medical devices, could better reach people in the developing world. However, the panel’s findings and recommendations reflected fundamentally flawed understanding of how research and development works – a misconception that has much larger implications for Minnesota’s prosperous medical device industry.

The United Nation’s recommendations do not remedy “the policy incoherence between the justifiable rights of inventors and public health” as suggested. At its most basic flaw, the report calls for fewer international protections for patents that support the research and development that is needed to advance medical innovation at our current pace. If these suggestions are followed, we will undoubtedly see a decline in the lifesaving breakthroughs we’ve grown accustomed to under America’s strong patents system.

This reality comes down to a simple equation. When pharmaceutical and medical device companies make a breakthrough in medical innovation, they are compensated through owning the rights to sell that innovation as a product. Businesses that operate in this space spend large sums of money working on research and development, pursing cures and treatments without a promised “dollar” for their work. When lightning strikes and a breakthrough is established, patents and intellectual property rights ensure these companies are compensated for all of the time and effort they placed into these new discoveries.

For example, Medtronic spent $1.64 Billion on research and development in 2015. Their business would not be able to make these types of expenditures on finding new solutions to our most serious cardiovascular conditions, without the promise that their intellectual property would be honored should new products and inventions emerge from this research.

While we can all agree that supporting global health and access to medical treatments for all people is a just cause, eliminating the protections that incentivize innovation could rob future generations of life-saving treatments, and even more immediately, jobs associated with the medical technology industry.

This is particularly worrisome for Minnesota, as the #1 state in the nation for medical technology patents per-capita. If international bodies like the United Nations green light a disregard for patents and intellectual property, will Minnesota’s med tech companies remain profitable as they grow to incorporate larger demands for their devices overseas? And what will this mean for the more than 300,000 Minnesotans who are employed in one facet or another by our state’s med tech industry?

These are questions we must ask of the United Nations and other international bodies that work to codify laws on intellectual property and patents. Let’s make this a priority for our elected officials from Minnesota and make sure America stands its ground on intellectual property and patent enforcement internationally.

Ainsley Shea