New Internationalist

India’s drug ‘lifeline’ under threat

Photo by UK Department for International Development under a CC Licence.

I never dreamed I’d ever wave the flag for Indian pharmaceutical companies. But some years ago, I discovered that India provides essential drugs to most of the world’s economically deprived nations. Many of the poorest people in India and Africa could not afford basic drugs if it were not for Indian drug companies.

Astonishingly, India is known as the ‘pharmacy to the developing world’ and is something of a hero in the fight for affordable drugs for the poor. The reason for this is it’s able to produce cheap generic medicines because it was not issuing drug patents until 2005. This means generic companies are able to mass produce and sell non-patented medicines at a fraction of the price of their multinational corporation counterparts.

India was legally forced, under pain of prosecution, to adhere to World Trade Organisation (WTO) intellectual property regulations in 2005. But it still has a section of its Patent Act, section 3(d), that is designed to prevent the patenting of new uses and forms of known medicines.

Now, lest you are misled into thinking that Indian companies are providing a charitable service, they most certainly are not. Of the top 50 billionaires in India, according to Forbes Rich list, seven are individuals involved with the pharmaceutical industry. Several Chinese pharmaceutical tycoons are also billionaires.

But apparently, multinational corporations want more. So while Indian companies presumably sell at a high enough profit to satisfy our billionaires, for the multinationals this is not enough.

The Swiss company Novartis is currently in the Supreme Court of India fighting to overturn section 3(d) of the Patent Act and keep its patent on a new crystalline salt form of the anti-cancer drug imatinib mesylate which it sells in the market, under the brand name Gleevec, at 120,000 rupees ($2,600) per month.

Since the original drug is not patented in India, generic drug companies produce and sell Gleevec to chronic myeloid leukemia patients at less than one-tenth of Novartis’s price i.e. for about 8,000 rupees ($175) per month. A new patent could give Novartis a 20-year monopoly on the drug, a terrifying prospect for the world’s poor: especially as it could have consequences for so many other drugs.

‘About 80 per cent of anti-AIDS drugs and 92 per cent of drugs for children with AIDS across the developing world come from Indian generic manufacturers,’ says Leena Menghaney of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). ‘India is literally the lifeline of poor patients, especially in the poorest parts of Africa. If section 3(d) is overturned, any meaningful effort to make these vital medicines available to the world’s poorest will be put in jeopardy.’

The English words ‘economy’ and ‘economics’ can be traced back to the Greek word oikonomos ‘one who manages a household.’ Logically, this implied the well-being of the family and later of citizens or society.

At what point did well-being move out of the equation and pure greed and profiteering become the order of the day? If governments are meant to govern wisely, they must work for the benefit of the majority, not just the profiteering minority. Yet billions are spent by corporations on lobbyists who try to influence policy affecting the poorest countries.

During the WTO and GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) rounds, Congress Watch environmentalists found they could not go near their US government representatives in Geneva and Doha, but fat cat lobbyists were wining and dining them everyday. In the Novartis patents case, currently in the Indian Supreme Court, a judge was recused because social activists exposed the fact that he had gone to a conference organized by Novartis and written a paper expressing views detrimental to the case.

But for every judge exposed there are hundreds of senators, congressmen and ministers who get away with corrupt decisions influenced by lobbyists that are harmful to the interests of ordinary people.

India’s recent anti-corruption movement has exposed politicians and bureaucrats, but multinational corporation corruption in high places, which causes untold misery to billions, needs to be addressed. Not merely in India and Africa, but in the corridors of power at international levels.

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  1. #1 TT 09 Sep 11

    Great article! I had absolutely no idea Indian pharma companies were so important to the developing world. Lets hope that the new patent laws giving a 20 year monopolies to copanies never comes to pass! This article stirred my interest, and I did some quick research,

    and a couple of great power points on this page

  2. #2 onedaywonder 09 Sep 11

    Thank you for airing this sorry saga which has been rumbling under the radar for a while. Please do let us know what the Supreme Court decides (wasn't there a hearing this last Tuesday?).
    Sadly such wrangles for patent exclusivity by drugs multinationals (which are always to the detriment of ordinary patients) are repeated time after time.
    New Internationalist reported in 2003 (NI 362) on this very same drug. Here's an extract from the Keynote to that edition (which was devoted to Big Pharma):
    'In February this year [2003], a delegation of South Korean leukaemia patients, many in an obviously debilitated condition, protested in front of the local offices of the Swiss drug transnational Novartis. They were clutching at straws really.
    'Leukaemia patients in South Korea had taken part in trials for Novartis' new drug Glivec (also marketed as Gleevec), helping to get it approved in record time. Glivec is a genuinely life-prolonging drug. But girded by patent exclusivity, the Korean leukaemia patients found it was prohibitively priced. it sells for $19 a tablet - a year's treatment of eight tablets a day costs over $50,000. In desperation, a group of patients who had been part of the trials in Korea decided to apply for 'compulsory licensing'. This is a WTO provision which allows governments faced with a 'national emergency' or 'extreme urgency' to overrule patent rights and buy or produce a generic version of a drug. (The US had invoked it during the anthrax scare which followed 11 September 2001.) The Koreans soon found an Indian manufacturer who could produce the drug for less than a dollar a tablet.
    'While the South Korean Ministry of Health was considering the application, the US Secretary of Commerce sent a written threat warning against compulsory licensing of Glivec. The Korean Health Minister favoured the proposal but soon lost his job in a cabinet reshuffle. He denounced the role Big Pharma's influence had played in his dismissal. That left the patients with little option but to talk to Novartis directly - with disastrous results. Rough-handed by the police, two sustained injuries that required hospitalization.
    '[This dismal tale] reflects Big Pharma's key obsessions - money madness, ruthless suppression of competition, an ability to bend rules to its own advantage, political clout and a contemptible disregard for the consumer. All this from an industry that takes every opportunity to crow about its noble mission to fight disease.'

    How little things change on that front. What is sickening is that the companies stand to make huge profits anyway if they make cheaper versions for countries where patients cannot pay high prices. Currently Johnson and Johnson has been targeted by an MSF campaign for its refusal to join a medicine patents pool which would make its new generation AIDS drugs affordable to people who would otherwise die without them. The baby lotion manufacturer is not swayed.

  3. #3 NP 10 Sep 11

    why this author hates india like the rest of the magazine does? jealous? Why do you want to impose 20 year monopoly on essential drugs and make the drugs more costly for the developing world? This article must have been funded by brand drug manufacturers. Nice example of hypocrisy.

  4. #4 P G Krishnan Iyer 20 Sep 11

    Very lucid write-up.It is clear enough for anyone to understand how the Patent regime can harm wellness aspirations of billions of human beings

  5. #5 James Hardgreaves 07 Oct 11

    1. Drug patents don't last longer than 10 years
    2. If you kill multinational pharmaceutical companies revenues, you kill their R&D not their profits.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

Read more by Mari Marcel Thekaekara

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