Every month, more good news comes out of North Carolina’s thriving biotech sector. In November, DuPont announced an expansion of its operations in Lenoir County. In December, two firms revealed plans to expand in Rowan and Gaston counties. In January, a California biotech company decided to relocate to Asheville.
But future expansion is hardly a sure thing. Some members of Congress are pushing for laws that would put future health and economic gains from biotech at risk.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. Take the fight against HIV/AIDS. A three-drug combination known as Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy has prevented 862,000 premature deaths and transformed the once-fatal disease into a manageable condition.
Or consider the ongoing battle against cancer. Since 2001, with FDA approval of a medication known as Imatinib, the survival rate for those suffering from chronic leukemia has increased from a dismal 31 percent to a remarkable 89 percent.
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This lifesaving medical innovation also brings substantial economic benefits. Pharmaceutical advances that reduce cancer deaths by just 10 percent add up to $4.4 trillion in economic benefits to the national economy, thanks to fewer hospitalizations and procedures.
The biotech sector provides jobs throughout the Tar Heel State. More than 66,000 workers in North Carolina work in nearly 3,000 biotech firms. The average annual salary for someone employed in North Carolina’s bioscience sector is more than $81,000 a year.
The spillover effects from the biotech sector are also considerable. Biotech companies have over 4,000 relationships with North Carolina vendors. The sector buys $3.4 billion of goods and services from these local businesses.
But this economic activity – and the medical advances it represents – is under threat. Some lawmakers are pushing to weaken patent protections, which are key to the success of any biotech firm.
Certain members of Congress want to rework patent laws and make it more difficult for companies to defend their drug formulas in court. Strong patent protections allow innovative biotech firms to sue other companies that try to unfairly rip off their ideas. Without these tough laws, firms won’t have the confidence to invest their time and money in finding cures.
Developing a drug is a long and expensive process. All told, researching, testing, and securing FDA approval for a new medicine costs almost $2.6 billion, according to researchers at Tufts University.
That cost is particularly steep for a highly advanced class of drugs known as biologics. Currently, biologic manufacturers receive 12 years of data protection for their discoveries before copycats can move in. That’s a proper period of time for companies to recover their huge investments.
Unfortunately, some members of Congress as well as President Obama have been considering reducing that 12-year head start to seven or even five years. Economists agree that the move would dash hopes for new cures. A Duke University research paper explains that “important new medicines could be delayed significantly or deterred altogether.”
Lawmakers are also considering a harmful intervention in the Medicare prescription drug benefit, Part D. The program has kept down costs by encouraging competition in the drug marketplace. But now Congress and the president want to set price controls on drugs in the program.
This interference will diminish the amount of funding pharmaceutical companies can allocate toward developing new medicines. Fewer new medicines means sicker patients and fewer jobs for North Carolinians.
Either of these ill-considered changes could cripple the development of life-saving drugs. And that innovation drives North Carolina’s thriving bioscience job market. To ensure the continued expansion of North Carolina’s biotech sector – and the health benefits it provides – our lawmakers must resist these short-sighted measures.
Randy Light is director of development for Chatham Social Health Council, which offers education, testing, access to care and support services for people infected, affected or at high risk for HIV/AIDS, STDs and other health disparities.