A recent patent suit involving heart valves creates the potential for folks to die. An April 19th WSJ article outlines the situation. With a producing manufacture (Medtronic in this case) adjudicated as violating patent(s) of Edwards Lifesciences was issued an injunction against selling a heart valve. All of this with patients lined up for valve insertion and limited supply from Edwards. While both the court and Edwards have tried to provide for some limited continuation by Medtronic, it creates a rather interesting scenario on the ethical issues associated with the explicit monopoly associated patents and the use of injunctions when lives are at stake. The article asserts that Medtronic offers valves in a wider range of sizes which can be used in patients where the Edwards offering would not work. Edwards is seeking to limit use of Medtronic valves in any hospitals not currently using them.
This type of situation may be more likely in the bio-medical field than some other technology areas, but no doubt other examples may emerge.
Can a patent be used to prevent health or safety critical technology from being provided? What about slightly less direct survival impact areas like food supply –seeds can be patented that may improve yield, disease or environmental resistance, etc. Patents are ‘national’, so situations can exist where a country specifically chooses to deny the applicability of some patents to benefit their populations. Trade treaties, like NAFTA, can expand patents across international borders. (Eli Lilly has raised just such a suit.)
There is some good meat in all of this for a robust debate on ethics, patents and paths of legal recourse.