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Letter: Public funding for drug research

Merck scientist Pascale Nantermet conducts research to discover

Merck scientist Pascale Nantermet conducts research to discover new HIV drugs in West Point, Pa. on Feb. 28, 2013. Credit: AP

It's time to take the shareholder out of drug research and return the field to the researchers and doctors ["My prescription to help fix health care," Opinion, Aug. 28].

Major pharmaceutical companies benefit from the most anti-competitive government practice in the form of patent protection. In a truly free market, the cost of pharmaceuticals would be a fraction of what they are today.

Major pharmaceutical companies spend roughly $30 billion a year on research, some of it on copycat drugs of others' patents, or drugs just different enough from an expiring patent to obtain a new one. The cost to the American public for those patents is hundreds of billions a year more than generics would cost. Pharmaceutical companies spend twice as much on advertising and lobbying as on research.

Government funds roughly the same amount of research at our major universities and teaching hospitals. These institutions receive taxpayer support of one kind or another, without which they would not exist. If the government were to fund all drug research and relegate the major pharmaceutical companies to the production of generic drugs, we would save a fortune.

As a child, I lined up with every other school child in America to be vaccinated against polio, a vaccine that was created in a government-funded lab at the University of Pittsburgh. When journalist Edward R. Murrow asked who owned the patent on the vaccine, Dr. Jonas Salk replied, "Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?"

Joel Herman, Melville