Research and development of life-saving and -improving treatments can be a costly business, and so sometimes high drug prices are inevitable. However, it is frequently the case that prices are set with little reference to these costs but rather are set at the maximum the market will bear. Acquiring smaller companies and then increasing the prices of the drugs they sell is also not uncommon. Partially as a result, 34 million Americans have lost a family member or a friend in the last five years, not because the treatment didn’t exist, but because they couldn’t afford it.
A subset of this issue is how healthcare companies interact with the patent system. Patents exist so that companies can enjoy exclusive rights to the profit of an invention for a period after its launch - in most cases 20 years. This has contributed to highly unequal access to COVID-19 vaccines between rich and poor countries. Companies also often file multiple patents (sometimes over 100 per drug) and make minor adjustments to their product to extend the life of the patent, resulting in prices that are unaffordable for many over an ever longer period of time.