The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that it wants an exclusive patent on the SARS virus to guarantee the discovery remains in the public domain. That’s the right thing to do. In fact, any eventual vaccine or cure for SARS should also remain in the public domain so access to affordable treatment is possible in the event of a public health emergency. If the patent were held in private hands, it could prevent cooperative efforts among scientists across the globe and complicate efforts to make treatments or vaccines available to the public at large.

Despite, or maybe because of these facts, several laboratories have already filed US patent applications for SARS virus genes, and CDC director Dr. Julie Gerberding said that more than thirty biomedical companies have requested SARS viral samples for their efforts to develop a treatment, vaccine or test. The speed of the patent race is impressive, but this race for profits isn’t good for public health.

What’s the danger if private companies hold the patent? Research is stifled and products are overpriced. Our nation’s experience with prescription drugs should teach us a lesson. We are the only country that grants monopoly rights in the form of patents without asking for anything in return, and as a result, American citizens pay twice as much for the exact same medications as their counterparts across the border. Now faced with global public-health threats like SARS, we must stop foolishly pandering to the pharmaceutical industry and demand balance.

I will soon be introducing legislation that would create a new network of government labs for the research, development and manufacture of pharmaceutical products and biologics. The labs would be responsible for developing new cures and bringing them to the American people in a timely and affordable manner, something that the pharmaceutical industry has glaringly failed to do. Under the leadership of the National Institutes of Health, these government labs would receive direction on public health priorities. Labs would both perform the R&D for new therapies and cures, and form cooperative agreements with educational, research and private institutions.

In return for cooperative agreements to perform R&D, all research data and findings would be made public on a central website, just like the Human Genome Project. When discoveries are made, the patents would be held by the government and nonexclusive licenses would be attached to them. This would allow companies to compete to manufacture pharmaceutical products, just like generic drug companies do now. This would radically bring down the cost of drugs. In 2000, if drugs had not been subject to patent protection, total savings for government and consumers would have been roughly $80 billion.

In addition to making new cures affordable for Americans, this proposal would increase the affordability of cures worldwide. Of the 42 million people with AIDS around the globe, approximately 300,000 are receiving proper treatment. Patents give drug companies monopolies on therapies and cures, thus allowing prices as high as the market will bear. When the price is unbearable, as in poor African nations, it can mean a public health disaster.

Finally, this proposal will improve the quality of R&D by using an “open source” system that makes data and findings publicly available, instead of held secret as proprietary data. This will allow us to tap the collective genius of the world community of scientists. Open source is how the Linux computer operating system has become a competitive force against Microsoft’s Windows. Anyone can download Linux without restriction, and many people catch bugs and submit improvements for the common goal of having the best system for operating our computers.

If smart people across the world do this for computers, can we not do it for the sake of public health? Over time, we have watched the pharmaceutical industry fail on three counts: submitting fewer and fewer drugs to FDA for approval, creating “copycat” drugs instead of truly new cures and raising drug prices higher every year. Our current patent system is what encourages artificial improvements and keeps prices high. It seems clear that one of the keys to public health is establishing public patents. Let’s do it today.