The Hindu’s extensive coverage, that included an insightful editorial, of the Supreme Court’s rejection of Novartis’s plea for an anti-cancer drug patent is laudable (April 2). Most drug manufacturers are more bothered about huge margins of profit and payment of high dividends to shareholders with no concern for poor patients. The fact that a number of retailers offer incentives of 10 to 15 per cent discount on purchases indicates the huge margin available to them. Manufacturers are not content with this huge margin and want to further fleece the poor.
It is a red-letter day in not only India but also all underdeveloped countries in Asia and Africa where the incidence of cancer is one of the highest. Life-saving drugs are big business these days for western-based R&D. The crux of the problem lies in the prohibitive cost of western R&D in making life-saving drugs. Indigenous R&D is the only way out. Planners should realise that India and China are well-equipped to do it. R&D in proportion to the GDP is abysmally low in India (in the order of less than two per cent). The onus is on the government to support indigenous research in a big way.
Most of the reporting in the media is misleading, because it gets unnecessarily enmeshed in the economics of drug pricing. The landmark judgment pertained to whether the beta crystalline form, Imatinib myselate, is an original invention or a simple molecular manipulation. The media noise created gives the impression that multinational pharmaceuticals are “Shylocks” of a new order, while Indian pharmaceutical companies are charitable institutions out to save Third World humanity. While MNCs resort to unjustifiable pricing for their original inventions, Indian companies resort to “legal piracy” of imitating an original invention. It is worthwhile to know that not a single pharmaceutical product is an invention by any exclusively Indian pharmaceutical company.
The verdict is a humanitarian one. I lost my son to cancer. More than the pain, what upset him was the high cost of medicines.
The rejection of Novartis’s appeal sets a high bar on patent laws. With growth slowing in the developed world, and their governments struggling on health-care spending because of ballooning debts, drug companies are looking to grow in emerging markets. Unlike their western counterparts, who have health insurance through their government or their employer, many Indians, spend from their pockets to meet their health needs. So patent techniques like “evergreening” will not only not work but will also be self-defeating.