International experts say a way must be found to balance the need of the world's population for lifesaving medicine and the massive investments made by pharmaceutical companies.
Whether the concern is HIV/AIDS or bird flu, health experts say the international patent system that protects intellectual property is not flexible enough to make drugs widely available in the case of major public health threats.
A current example is the Swiss drug maker Roche, which developed the anti-viral drug Tamiflu and holds a monopoly on its manufacture. Governments world-wide now want to stockpile the drug against a possible bird flu pandemic, and Roche alone cannot meet the demand. It has been under international pressure to allow other companies to make the drug, and this week it finally said it would consider the idea.
This is only one of a number of drugs the public would benefit from if they were more widely and cheaply available. The difficulty is to also promise a reasonable profit, so private firms will continue to make the huge investments needed to create new drugs.
The problem of availability versus corporate profit is the subject of a conference in Manila this week, sponsored by the Philippine government, the World Health Organization, and the World Intellectual Property Organization.
Peter Favila, secretary of the Philippine Department of Trade and Industry, spoke in favor of balancing public need and corporate profits, but emphasized that public access to life-saving drugs cannot be ignored.
"... Our intellectual property system should not deter poor people's access to health care and benefits. Instead, enhancing the protection of intellectual property should be balanced with the demands of public health and well-being," he said.
James Love, director of the Washington-based Consumer Project on Technology, one says possible solution is to create a "patent pool" of essential medicines, guaranteeing both availability to the public and royalties to producers.
"The idea would be to consolidate all the patents you need for important medicines ... and then try and negotiate voluntary licenses with the patent owners with a reasonable set of royalties for the patent owners," said Mr. Love. "And if the patent owners are not willing to license their patents voluntarily, then the governments have the option of pursuing compulsory licenses."
Mr. Love told VOA another approach under consideration in Congress is a proposed law creating a special fund for drug makers.
"It says, let us just create a massive medical innovation prize fund, which provides a sustainable source of financial incentives to people to develop new drugs," he added. "But let us not tie it to the price of the drug, let us tie it to the positive health outcomes you get."
The World Health Organization estimates that about two billion people, or one-third of the world's population, still has no access to essential medicine. This is defined as drugs required to satisfy the health care needs of a majority of the population, including against such major illnesses as malaria, AIDS, and tuberculosis.