Tillis-Coons Bill Would Undo Major Supreme Court Rulings Preventing Big Pharma’s Patent Abuse
American innovation and ingenuity are an essential driver of key medical advancements. They improve countless lives through a myriad of cures and treatments. But with increasingly expensive prescription drug prices and treatments, thanks in no small part to the exploitive behavior of groups like Big Pharma to extend and protect their decades-long monopolies on prescription drugs, patients need new and affordable solutions.
Unfortunately, there is a misguided effort in the U.S. Senate to drastically damage the potential for new innovative healthcare solutions that would ultimately lead to even higher prescription drug prices and reduced patient access to life-saving treatments and diagnostics. Senators Thom Tillis (R-NC) and Chris Coons (D-DE) have released a draft bill, clearly written in close consultation with Big Pharma, which would quietly, but dramatically, loosen the rules found in Section 101 of the Patent Act. While the Senators have tried to portray this legislation as rewarding and fostering innovation and research, nothing could be further from the truth.
Currently, Section 101 of the Patent Act prevents companies from patenting abstract ideas, laws of nature and naturally occurring phenomena. Innovators can patent the inventions that result from the application of new discoveries, but they cannot patent the knowledge itself. For example, this means that a company can patent a new gene therapy they have invented, but they cannot patent the knowledge of the gene’s existence. In fact, for the past several decades the Supreme Court has ruled that that laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas are not eligible for patents under the Patent Act.
The benefit of this rule is that no one company can hold a monopoly on the knowledge of scientific discoveries. This means that competitors are free to innovate and research new discoveries and find incredible new applications for the newly uncovered knowledge. Section 101 has, by creating competition that fosters innovation, improved medical treatment, lowered prices and ultimately saved lives.
For example, in The Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics the court ruled that patents on genes would block naturally occurring information and prevent scientific and medical innovation. This ruling, in support of Section 101, prevented a company from creating a monopoly on the knowledge on the location of two genes that, when mutated, significantly raise the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. The ruling also allows for competitive research and patient diagnostics which increases the chance of new discoveries and gives patients more options. And finally, the decision recognized what should be a clear and fundamental truth: knowledge of the natural world should not be any one person or group’s intellectual property.
Section 101 is a guard against frivolous and reckless patents that groups like Big Pharma try to use to abuse the patent system, drive up prices on patients and give themselves effective monopolies on lifesaving solutions that patients desperately need.
Yet at the very same time millions of Americans are struggling with rising prescription drugs costs and demanding Congress take action, Senators Tillis and Coons’ bill would actually make things worse by turning Section 101 into an enabler of Big Pharma. Their legislation would amend the Patent Act and allow patents on products and laws of nature, abstract ideas and other areas of general knowledge, meaning companies could patent things like human genes. To put that into perspective, under the Tillis-Coons legislation, patients will be at risk of being unable to access information about their very own genes because Big Pharma will hold a patent on them.
This attempt to promote Big Pharma’s interests by overturning decades of Supreme Court precedent will have disastrous impacts on competition, innovation and patients. Patents on knowledge itself gives groups like Big Pharma a de facto monopoly on new discoveries which they will extend using exploitive tactics like patent thickets. Furthermore, with no one else in the market to compete with, Big Pharma will be free to raise prices on lifesaving treatments and medications.
For a bill that seeks to enhance innovation, the Tillis- Coons bill accomplishes the exact opposite. It will lead to increased prescription drug prices, reduced access to life saving treatments and medications and de-incentivize research and development. If Congress truly wishes to promote innovation, they should reject this counter-productive piece of legislation, authored by high-powered lobbyists of major drug companies and instead focus on ways to curb Big Pharma’s rampant abuse of the patent system.