With the elevation of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as the NDA's Prime Ministerial candidate and Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh categorically endorsing Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi as the party's candidate for the top post in the 2014 elections, the battle lines have been clearly drawn.
Though we are supposed to follow the Westminister style of Parliamentary democracy, in essence, we have come to practice the Presidential form of elections, what with the leading political parties declaring their candidates for the top job rather than awaiting the Parliamentary party to elect its leader.
That being the case, one wonders why there cannot be a healthy debate on key issues and concerns such as foreign policy, internal security, education, health, environment et al among the key players.
In a country where only a miniscule minority have health insurance and over 70 per cent of population pay from their pocket to meet their healthcare expenses, which adds immensely to their family budget in a high inflation economy, availability of drugs at reasonable rates is a critical component of the health policy.
Many families go bankrupt when confronted with diseases such as cancer and Behcet’s Disease, where the costs of drugs are very high. This issue was highlighted in actor Aamir Khan’s highly acclaimed television serial ‘Satyameva Jayate’ some time back.
One of the key solutions to this is in making available to the public at large generic drugs. A generic drug is defined as "a drug product that is comparable to brand/reference listed drug product in dosage form, strength, route of administration, quality and performance characteristics, and intended use."
Generic drugs are sold at significantly lower prices than their branded equivalents. One reason for their low price is that pharma companies incur fewer costs in producing them as they don’t have to bear the high costs of development and testing, as in branded drugs.
is the leading manufacturer of generic drugs in the world, Indians continue to pay high cost for drugs as there is general apathy on the part of the Government to promote them due to vested interests or otherwise.
Of late, there have been some efforts in this direction. The Department of Pharmaceuticals has launched a campaign for opening of ‘Jan Aushadhi’ stores across the country with a view to make available unbranded quality generic medicines at affordable prices through public-private partnership, encourage doctors, more specifically in government hospital to prescribe generic medicines and enable substantial savings in health care more particularly in the case of poor patients and those suffering from chronic ailments requiring long periods of drug use.
Currently, there are 117 Jan Aushadhi stores across India, and the department plans to expand the number to 3,000 by 2016.
In Rajasthan, over 70 fair price generic medicine shops are functional in medical college hospitals, district, sub-district and satellite hospitals by the name of “Life Line Drug Stores” and are operated by Rajasthan
Medicare Relief Societies.
The Government of Rajasthan too is providing generic drugs through 15,000 free drug distribution Centres, right from medical college hospital to PHCs and sub-centres. About 400 types of commonly used essential generic drugs, surgical and sutures are given free of cost in government hospitals in Rajasthan.
However, unnerved by such moves, the global pharmaceutical majors are inflicting patent litigation on generic drug makers with a view to keep their bottom lines strong.
When the Supreme Court denied a patent application for Glivec (also known as Gleevec), a treatment for leukemia made by Novartis, it sparked off a debate across the world. While a New York Times editorial hailed the verdict saying it “could help poor patients get drugs at prices they can afford while preserving an incentive for true innovation”, a Forbes columnist slammed it observing thus, “If anything, recent Indian policies are sending a signal that intellectual property is tenuous in this country and will be granted only in those cases where it can benefit India.”
The Patents Act of 1970 was a watershed law designed to encourage the domestic development and production of low-cost generic medicines. Over the decades, it helped the country, become the “pharmacy of the developing world,” with generic manufacturers competing for markets and thereby dramatically driving down prices of medicines that were patented elsewhere.
For example, Thailand has imported from India millions of doses of a generic version of the blood-thinning drug Plavix (used to prevent heart attacks), at a cost of 3 US cents per dose while many an African country is fighting the HIV menace thanks to the low cost of Indian generic drugs.
In fact, over80% of antiretrovirals (ARVs) used by donor funded HIV treatment programmes globally between 2003 and 2008 were sourced from generic manufacturers in India.
In 1995, India joined the World
Trade Organization and started granting pharmaceutical patents within a decade. However, in 2005, it adopted a strict drug patent law that did not allow patent on new forms of existing medicines but at the same time it ensured patent protection for new pharmaceutical compounds.
It helped in curbing pharma giants from indulging in “evergreening,” a common abusive patenting practice in the pharmaceutical industry aimed at filing and then obtaining separate patents relating to different aspects of the same medicine.
Under the new regime, product patents would regularly be put to test in the court of law. Global pharma companies are now fighting for their pound of flesh in the voluminous Indian drug market and they fully understand that to gain market share they will have to clear the litmus test of Indian Patents Act.
US drug majors are trying to project India as a haven for intellectual property pirates while the Americans themselves have indulged in blatant protectionism in the past.
While it is true that the country’s IP tribunal has revoked more number of patents as compared to its counterparts across the globe, it also awarded 4,000 patents for innovations in pharmaceuticals domain between 2005 and 2011. Over 85 percent of those patents were awarded to multinational drug companies. Thus, the situation is not as grim as it is made out to be.
Therefore, the increasing number of patent related litigation should not be seen as a worrisome trend, as has been portrayed especially in the western media. Undoubtedly, innovators should be given the opportunity to recover their investment in research and development of drugs but no Government can allow its citizens to suffer in the absence of life saving drugs.
India’s current patent regime does not allow pharmaceutical companies to continue charging high prices, which can mean the difference between life and death for millions of impoverished Indians.
As the country goes to polls next year, a large section of the population is keen to know the stand of different political parties on the issue.
If the Americans can debate outsourcing to India as a key electoral issue, Indian politicians too should openly debate issues such as drug patents, which directly affect millions of people across the nation.
(About the Author: KG Suresh is a Senior Journalist based in New Delhi)