India, the Pharma Giant of the Developing World
Asma Razaq, Communication Fellow of Atlas Corps
What is the average price of a drug used to cure cancer? The answer is disappointingly unclear since pharmaceutical companies price the identical drugs differently from country to country. For example Gleevec, a leukemia drug that costs $70,000 in the U.S, costs just $ 2500 in India because the medicine is under patent in U.S but not in India.
That is what occurs in today’s world of medicines. Indian pharmaceutical industry is the ‘pharmacy of the poor’ that has developed generic medicines to compete patented brand name medicines. Indian generic medicines are not just less expensive in prices but they have simplified the treatment of major diseases like AIDS, Cancer, TB and other infectious diseases too. For instance Nexavar, a drug used to treat liver cancer, was being priced at $ 4500 per month by a German drug company, Bayer. Its generic equivalent was developed in India that decreased the price of the medicine by 97 percent. An Indian Drug company has developed HIV/AIDS pill, Cipla, that combines three drugs. In spite of taking a hand full of pills, a patient can just take 2-3 medicines a day as a treatment of AIDS.
Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi was recently on two day visit to the US. The visit aimed to review the progress made in the key areas of defence, energy and security. Keeping in mind the Indian Pharmaceutical sector’s contribution to the production of cheap generic medicines , Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM), Public Citizen and other health organizations held a protest on June 7 outside the White House. The protest aimed at urging the Indian Prime Minister to defy pressure from the US pharmaceutical lobby and lawmakers. The protesters chanted ‘Prime Minister Modi keep your promise, stay true. Don’t let Big Pharma intimidate you!’. The protesters were concerned that millions of people around the globe would be put at high risk if the Pharma lobby were to succeed in pressurizing India to amend their Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs). Indian generic medicines are low-cost and quite affordable by millions of families across the world. Therefore, a change in the Indian Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs), would ultimately lead to the high cost of essential medicines that would be out of reach of a large proportion of the population.
The Indian Patent Act of 1970 proved to be very generous towards the domestic pharma industry as it not only allowed patenting of the drug producing process instead of the product but also encouraged the shortening of life of drug patents. India has done a remarkable job in the field of medicine but pressure from the US could change things for the worse. By encouraging domestic drug companies, it has developed the generic alternatives to the life-saving drugs, helping to drive down prices globally. Unlike in countries like the United States, the Indian IPRs, patents are issued only when they are completely new.
Due to the absence of essential drugs in the public sector, patients are left with no other alternative except to purchase medicines from the private sector in many low income countries at much high prices. Such decisions leave many families struggling to pay and push them deeper into poverty. One of the well-known strategies to improve access to medicines is through generic competition. Indian generic medicines, being a source of cheap medicines, have proved to be a great blessing for those who cannot afford to pay the high prices driven by Big Pharma. If India buckles to U.S. pressure and amends its patent laws in favor of Big Pharma, low cost of life-saving drugs would become an increasingly unachievable reality that would deprive the majority of poor population of its legitimate right of access to medicines and ultimately, for many they would pay the price with their lives.