The United States has been locked in a fierce face-off with Argentina over intellectual property protection since 1989 - and Argentina is still winning. America is the world's chief cheerleader for the protection of intellectual property, including patents. Patent protection is the magnet for the immense investment required to fund research and development.

Prescription medicines that save, extend and improve patients' lives, for example, cost an average $350 million to $500 million each to discover and test, and take from about 12 to 15 years to move from the lab to the patient.Adequate and effective patent protection helps the U.S. economy, since the United States leads the world in innovation. It helps the patients of today and tomorrow, in Bangladesh and Brazil as well as Boston and Boise, because it maximizes the opportunity to discover cures for dread diseases. Today, you surely know someone who suffers from Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, breast cancer or AIDS. You know that their hopes for a cure, or at least an alleviation of their pain and suffering, rest on the pharmaceutical industry's discoveries. Tomorrow and next year, you will know many, many more such patients; you may be one yourself.

Rampant Argentine patent piracy is a major obstacle to pharmaceutical innovation and therefore a threat to all patients everywhere. Since 1989, Argentine government officials, including the president, have promised repeatedly to reform the law and provide patent protection for pharmaceuticals. Time and again, they have reneged on their word. Last year, they did enact a law - a statute that coddles pharmaceutical patent pirates for another five years, fails to protect products under development and jeopardizes the confidentiality of proprietary health data.

That law also is so ambiguous that the resulting litigation will be more complex and protracted than even Charles Dickens' legendary Chancery Court lawsuits.

What has the United States done about Argentina's broken promises and the resulting harm to the interests of the United States and patients everywhere? U.S. trade negotiators have tried hard, but effective action has been blocked by others in the Clinton administration. The administration has never even used the power provided by Congress to name Argentina as a nation that violates trade law.

This failure to act has tarnished the credibility of the United States. It has encouraged Argentina and others to flout the United States and continue to pirate our intellectual property with impunity. As a result, it has delayed the discovery and testing of cures for the patients of today and tomorrow. The welfare of patients is far more important than the interests of a handful of already rich foreign patent pirates. The administration should replace its empty words with an intelligent and muscular strategy to curb egregious pharmaceutical patent piracy in Argentina and elsewhere.

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