Glax0SmithKline (GSK) has announced that it will stop seeking patent protection in low-income and developing countries.  Thus allowing generic versions of their name-brand drugs to be sold to the public.

Patent protected medications are often expensive in high-income countries, they are completely unaffordable in the world’s lowest income countries.  Patents protect the developing company by not allowing production of “mimic” or generic versions of their drugs.  GlaxoSmithKline has just outlined a new plan on enforcing its intellectual property in the world’s poorest countries.

According to its new plan, GSK will not longer pursue patents for its medicines in the world’s 50 least developed countries and low income countries.  This means that when GSK has a new treatment, it will not prevent other drug manufacturers from supplying generic versions of the same medication to these countries.

Health experts are supporting this initiative from GSK as a great step toward making medicine more accessible to the world’s poorest populations.  This move by GSK was possibly sparked by similar moves from rival companies Merck and Roche.

“This is a brave and positive step towards broadening the access to important new medicines in the developing world,” former president of the British Pharmacological Society, Raymond Hill, told the BBC.

“Access to medicines for patients on a global basis is vital and it is good to see an innovative approach like this to ensure this happens,” added president of the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine, Alan Boyd.

GSK will continue to file for patents in lower middle income countries but will work on licensing agreements that will allow for the distribution of generic drugs to those countries.  In the world’s richest nations, business will continue as it has for decades.

“Any one of these things would have been a big deal by itself. When you put them all together, it’s quite a strong statement,” director of Knowledge Ecology International, James Love, told Asher Mullard at Nature.

This plan theoretically could help 2 billion people get access to medications that previously would have been unreachable.  This initiative is not without its detractors who say it is only a small piece to the puzzle of improving healthcare in developing and poor nations.

And even though the new plan in theory could help remove restrictions on access to medications for up to 2 billion people in 85 countries, others say the patent issue is only one part of the puzzle in improving health in remote and developing places.

“The impact of this move on the treatment of cancer and other diseases in each individual country will depend on whether there is a local adequate healthcare infrastructure that will allow the safe use of powerful new drugs in an appropriate group of patients,” Hill told the BBC. “Many new cancer drugs are most valuable when used in sub-groups of patients identified by advanced diagnostic techniques that may not be available.”

Sir Andrew Witty the CEO of GlaxSmithKline is well aware of this initiatives limitations.  He is hopeful that this gesture will help provoke other companies to take similar actions and progress the conversation about medicine in developing countries.

“Changes to patents and IP systems will not solve the multi-faceted challenges of improving healthcare in developing countries,” Witty said in a press release. “However, we believe the measures outlined today add to the wider contribution GSK makes to improve access to effective healthcare around the world.”