The Wire | 26 October 2015
India must resist US pressure on generic drugs, African leaders to tell Modi
By MK Venu
In his ‘Mann ki baat‘ radio show on Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi proudly spoke about how India will host 54 heads of state from Africa for the first time to reinforce “our nation’s historical and cultural links’ with African countries.
However, invoking this very spirit, the visiting African leaders will place before the Prime Minister an issue of life and death for their peoples in which India can play a critical role – the export of cheap and affordable generic medicines for the cure of AIDS and other deadly diseases. The African heads of state will urge Modi to resist growing pressure from the United States government and Western drug multinationals on India to stop exporting cheap generics to Africa.
Kenya’s ambassador in India, Florence Imisa Weche told this writer in an interview for RSTV that the issue of affordable medicine imports from India – especially for treating AIDS – is a matter of great concern for African nations. Weche indicated that the visiting African leaders will urge Modi not to dilute India’s current status as the “Pharmacy of the Third World”. This comes after the South African health minister expressed similar apprehensions a few months ago. The India-Africa summit will provide an opportunity to address this question.
The US pharma lobby wants India to limit the production of affordable generics to only what is required for Indian consumers under a “voluntary licensing scheme” and not produce drugs for third country patients. Some Indian companies, lured by higher profits, are already striking cosy deals with US pharma giants. The NDA government has shown a tendency to assist this collaboration through the back door, by signalling its willingness to dilute India’s pro-public health intellectual property policy which has been widely hailed in the developing world. India’s existing policy has enabled the price of HIV drugs to fall 99% – from $10,000 per person per year in 2000 to $100 per year today. Other diseases like tuberculosis, hepatitis and malaria which afflict millions of people in Africa also need affordable generic medicines exported from India.
The Modi government has publicly said that it is not willing to dilute India’s IPR law – whose provisions on compulsory licensing and the ‘evergreening’ of patents make it difficult for Western pharma companies to earn super-profits from essential formulations – but at the same time it has made some non-transparent moves like setting up a committee to look at the implementation of the IPR guidelines, especially in the pharma sector. Prime Minister Modi had publicly assured American CEOs in President Obama’s presence in India last January that he would “address all their concerns on Intellectual Property Rights”.
This assurance had caused apprehension about the NDA’s continued commitment to the current IPR policy. There is a fear that the law may remain the same but cumbersome procedural guidelines could make it costlier for domestic pharma companies to export cheap drugs to other developing countries.
Inspite of the big boost for a pro-public health policy which the Supreme Court delivered through its judgement against the US MNC Novartis some years ago, it appears American and other Western pharma companies have mounted a massive offensive against their Indian rivals through clever, procedural tweaking. So far, the NDA government has been a mute spectator.
For instance, a US multinational company, Gilead, launched an anti-Hepatitis C drug and entered into a deal with seven Indian companies to make the drug cheaper, but still unaffordable, thus offering higher profits to the Indian counterparts. The Indian pharma companies agreed to be co-opted because the alternative would be to get into long drawn and costly litigation against Gilead in order the make the same drug much cheaper in India – both for Indian patients and for export to developing regions like Africa. Given the critical importance of affordable drugs, it could be argued that a pro-active government ought to help its domestic pharma industry in the litigation process and even put price caps on such life saving drugs to ensure that public health objectives are met. This is precisely what the African heads of State will be urging Modi to do.