Orphan drugs are intended for diseases with a very low prevalence, and many countries have implemented legislation to support market access of orphan drugs. We argue that it is time to revisit the special market access status of orphan drugs. Indeed, evidence suggests that there is no societal preference for treating rare diseases. Although society appears to assign a greater value to severity of disease, this criterion is equally relevant to many common diseases. Furthermore, the criterion of equity in access to treatment, which underpins orphan drug legislation, puts more value on health improvement in rare diseases than in common diseases and implies that population health is not maximized. Finally, incentives for the development, pricing and reimbursement of orphan drugs have created market failures, including monopolistic prices and the artificial creation of rare diseases. We argue that, instead of awarding special market access status to orphan drugs, there is scope to optimize research and development (R&D) of orphan drugs and to control prices of orphan drugs by means of, for example, patent auctions, advance purchase commitments, pay-as-you-go schemes and dose-modification studies. Governments should consider carefully the right incentive strategy for R&D of orphan drugs in rare diseases.
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