85% of the patented new drugs have therapeutic equivalents…they do not increase the cost of treatment for the common man: Points…Counterpoints

Affordability of patented drugs has become a major controversial and at the same time a very sensitive issue in the healthcare space of India, just as in many other parts of the world. The government, the NGOs and other stakeholders, on the one hand, seem to be quite concerned about it. Innovator companies, on the other hand, also have quite robust arguments in their favor.

Meanwhile, the daily newspaper ‘DNA’ published a report on June 15, 2010 with a headline, “NPPA may cap cancer drug prices via Para 10’.

Let us now try to go through the points and counterpoints of this raging debate.

The basic reasons of concern:

The key points for this concern, I reckon, is based on the following two beliefs:

1. All our citizens should have access to all new drugs
2. All these new drugs are essential to treat most of the related disease conditions

Points in favor of free pricing for patented new drugs:

- Price is a function of the value that a patented new drug will offer to the patients. The price of new drugs will, in addition, include components of the cost incurred by the innovators towards research and development, to offer these products to the patients. This is absolutely essential to ensure continuous investment towards R&D by the innovator companies to meet the unmet needs of the patients.

- It has been reported that currently only 2.3% of the Indian Pharmaceutical Market (IPM) will represent drugs, which have no therapeutic equivalent. This means over 97% of the IPM constitutes of medicines, which have one or more therapeutic equivalents.

- So far as the patented products are concerned, over 85% of all those will have therapeutic alternatives. Empirical evidence suggests that just around 15% of the patented molecules have significant therapeutic advantages over existing drugs and cannot be replaced.

- Beta-lactam, Cephalosporin and Quinolone group of antibiotics are still relevant today and will remain for many more years. So are the likes of Beta Blockers, Calcium antagonists, Ace inhibitors, Proton Pump inhibitors and Statins.

- Therefore, all patients with any common disease profile will have adequate and a good number of cheaper treatment options with the generic drugs. As all new drugs are not essential to treat all related disease conditions, generic and patented medicines should co-exist to cater to the healthcare needs of patients of all income groups. Those who can afford to pay extra for the incremental value of such patented drugs should also have an option.

The Counter points:

- The opponents of the above argument raise the counter question, “if 85% of the patented drugs will have appropriate therapeutic equivalents, why then the pharmaceutical companies spend such a huge amount of money and other resources towards R&D to invent molecules, which do not add significant and substantial value to the existing ones to treat patients? Rationalization of such avoidable R&D expenditures will help reducing the price of even path-breaking patented molecules for the treatment of many disease conditions of the ailing patients”

- In this context ‘Australian Prescriber (2004; 27:136-7)’ commented:

“The patent system, which assumes that investment in the development of new drugs, is so important that the principles of the free market should be abrogated to reward pharmaceutical companies with a legally enforced period of protection from competition”.

- NGOs with a differing view point ask, “Many patented products are still not available in India, does the medical profession in the country find themselves seriously handicapped for not having access to these drugs?’

- This group puts forth the counter argument, “patent protection is based on the fundamental belief that for continuing investment to invent newer drugs, innovations must be adequately rewarded through appropriate protection of the patents. Thus patent protection should only be given to those innovations for which no therapeutic equivalents are available.”


A die-hard protagonist for fostering innovation commented, though the exclusivity for a patented drug given to an innovator would last for 20 years, the real commercial benefits will be available for just around 10 years, that too after spending a fortune towards R&D. Whereas, post patent expiry, the commercial benefits to the generic manufacturers (virtually spending nothing towards R&D) for the same molecule will last in perpetuity…for the patients’ sake!

By Tapan Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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