Big pharma is known for making medicines that are often toxic and worse than the disease. But they also produce life-saving medicines that people are desperate to obtain. Many of the least-served populations obtain medicines that are produced in India – known as the “pharmacy of the developing world” – because the country didn’t start granting patents on drugs until 2005, when it was forced to do so due to international trade rules. That was the year India adopted WTO-TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) obligations, making it difficult for companies in the country to make generics of patented drugs. According to Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), more than 80 percent of the HIV drugs it uses to treat more than 200,000 patients are generics from India, and the country’s generics have helped bring the standard HIV drug cocktail down from $10,000 to $100.
Big pharma companies are unhappy with India’s policies – preferring to file lawsuits and bully the country rather than allow life-saving medicines to be produced. For example, Novartis spent seven years challenging patent laws, until the Indian Supreme Court decided to uphold the country’s patent laws and decided against the big pharma.
Now the U.S government is using the U.S.-India trade policy forum for leverage and requesting investigations into India’s trade policies. The European Union has tried to install stricter intellectual property (IP) measures than it is required to have under international trade rules. Likewise, the 10 Asian countries involved in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership are calling for stringent IP laws that would put many of the generics produced in India back into unaffordable territory.
According to Janice Lee, a pharmacist with Doctors Without Borders/MSF who has worked in Liberia and Zimbabwe, India’s generics are essential for providing treatment for severe diseases in developing countries:
Our reliance on Indian generic drugs for treating patients with HIV/AIDS across all our programmes in MSF is particularly acute—around 80 percent of the AIDS medicines we use are generic drugs made by Indian companies. But it’s not just AIDS. In other projects too, we also routinely use Indian generic drugs to treat other diseases, such as TB, malaria, and a wide range of infectious diseases.
South African health minister Aaron Motsoaledi said that he was “scared and worried” about potential changes in India’s IP policies. The country’s officials are worried not only about the price of HIV/AIDS medicines, but also about rising prices for treatments for cancer and hepatitis. For example, Gilead Sciences’ hepatitis C drug Sovaldi hit the market in 2012 at a price of $84,000 for three months.
Motsoaledi made headlines when he called the actions of multinational pharma corporations “genocide,” but he stands by his use of the term:
Yes, I called it genocide because I was showing the number of people in sub-Saharan Africa who depend on generic anti-retrovirals, specially generics from India. I was showing them how many people will die [if the policies change]. For instance, out of the eight million people who are on anti-retrovirals in the world, six million are in Sub-Saharan Africa, most of them alive because of generics from India. If these six million do not have access to affordable generic anti-retrovirals, all of them will be gone. I mean, that’s genocide.
It’s still uncertain as to what changes may be coming for India’s generics industry, but Doctors Without Borders/MSF is hopeful that the public can help by spreading awareness of their reliance on these drugs.
Also by this author: