Thursday, November 16, 2006

Cheap drugs from India a boon

India has gotten giant drug manufacturers worried. It has challenged the patents on some of the world’s biggest money-making drugs. It has gone into manufacturing of low-cost drugs that would benefit the world’s poor. While India has stumped the big brand-name players, it has given poor nations such as those in Africa with huge numbers of AIDS cases a reason to be thankful.

Well, count the Philippines among the beneficiaries. But can’t the Philippines do the same?

I have been interested in India’s in-your-face kind of upstartness in putting the Goliaths of the drug industry on the defensive (or is it offensive?)

A story in yesterday’s Inquirer said that the government-run Philippine International Trading Corporation (PITC) will bring in up to P1 billion worth of low-cost medicine in 2007 to make essential drugs affordable to Filipinos. These will be sourced mainly from India and Pakistan. PITC has, in fact, been doing this but next year’s big batch is getting giant drug multinationals even more worried. PITC sells these cheap medicines through its network of Botika ng Bayan and Botika ng Barangay.

So Pfizer took legal action against PITC, saying that it has no assurance its patent rights would not be violated. With the support of international development agency Oxfam, medicine users picketed Pfizer to stress “patients’ rights over patent rights”. There.

Time magazine has come out with stories on India’s drug manufacturing time and again. Aravind Adiga wrote that India’s generic-drug makers are flooding international markets with cheap copycat pills, infuriating behemoth rivals from the US and Europe. These so-called copycat pills may not be “signature” or branded but they are not adulterated or less potent. Their components are like the branded ones. And they’re cheaper.

Wrote Adiga: “The notion that India’s upstart pharmaceutical firms could be a threat to Goliaths such as Pfizer and Merck might sound as hard to swallow as cod-liver oil. India is the world’s fourth largest drug producer by volume, but its fragmented industry of 20,000 companies is still stunted in terms of revenues. (In 2002), the total value of India’s drug sales including exports came to $6.5 billion, less than the $8 billion Pfizer raked in from a single blockbuster product, its anticholesterol drug Lipitor.”

Yet, Time reported, India’s copycat drug firms are becoming a headache for big multinationals. For not only are these Indian drug firms expanding to the US and Europe, they are also challenging patents so that cheaper alternatives could become widely available.

One of the challengers is Yusuf Hamied, chair of the Indian drug company Cipla who declared in 2001 that he was going to sell AIDS drugs to Africa less than four percent of the price charged by multinationals. A couple of years later, Hamied declared, “Today, the daggers are drawn.”

Hamied has been described as “the good doctor”. Devastated after seeing an AIDS-stricken friend waste away and die, he set out to do something. In his article for Time, Meenkshi Ganguly described Hamied as an organic chemist and owner of drug firms who made it his mission to find the magic drug. So when Glaxo Wellcome’s AZT and 3TC AIDS cocktails hit the market with promising results, Hamied and his researchers went to work.

Hamied’s Cipla has made anti-AIDS drugs available to the French NGO Medicins Sans Frontieres for less than $1 dollar a day ($350 per year) for the poor. “A humanitarian price,” Hamied said.

Indian laws allow the manufacture of already patented drugs as long as the process is different from the patented one. Because manufacturing cost in India is relatively low, Cipla is able to sell its medicines at a fraction of the cost of the original. $350 per patient per year for the Cipla AIDS cocktail as against $15,000 for the original.

The multinationals did not take this sitting down and howled protests saying India violated intellectual property rights. But these MNCs have long been accused of making giant profits out of poor people’s illnesses. Even after they have recovered the cost of research, their drugs remain overpriced, indirectly sending those who cannot afford the drugs to their deaths.

Medicins Sans Frontieres had even argued that some drugs were developed using US public funds and the companies that made them have already made a lot of profits so why the high cost?

And what did Hamied have to say of his drugs? “Just use the bloody thing. So what if I don’t make a profit on AIDS drugs. That is not the be-all or end-all…To say all Indians are pirates is very good PR. If I am a pirate, I am a thief. If I am a thief I have broken a law. But I abide by the laws of the land.”

Such unnerving effrontery if one may call it that. The man has nerve.

Here in the Philippines, it is not the AIDS cocktail that is causing a furor. The Inquirer report said the dispute revolves also around the importation of amlodipine besylate, the active ingredient of Pfizer’s anti-hypertension drug Norvasc, from what Pfizer said are “unauthorized sources” in India and Pakistan.

PITC argued that it is merely making medicines affordable for poor Filipinos and paving the way for an early regulatory approval so that the product could be marketed in the Philippines when the patent on Norvasc expires in June 2007. Pfizer looks at this an infringement on its intellectual property rights.

Gamot sa high-blood, anyone? Patent rights or patients’ rights?