Big Pharma: Now A ‘Chink in Its Armor’?

Emerging trends bring to the fore a possible ‘Chink in the Armor’ of the ‘Big Pharma’, despite a number of recent belligerent moves.

One such move I had deliberated in my earlier blog post. There I mentioned that 2014 report on ‘International Intellectual Property (IP) Index’ of the US Chamber of Commerce’s Global Intellectual Property Centre (GIPC) highlights India’s featuring at the bottom of 25 countries on Intellectual Property (IP) protection. Accordingly, the US Chamber having put forth a set of recommendations reportedly urged the US Trade Representive (USTR) to classify India as a ‘Priority Foreign Country’. This nomenclature is usually attributed to the worst offenders of ‘Intellectual Property Rights (IPR)’, which could culminate into trade sanctions.

The move attempts to dissociate IPR from ‘access to medicines’:

Though the methodology and alleged biases of this report were the topics of raging debates, according to USTR, this move of the US Chamber of Commerce is reportedly just against the IP regime in India and ‘not about access to medicines.’

This clarification is indeed bizarre, as most of the issues related to creation of intense political pressure from overseas for stringent IP regime in a country, such as India, revolve around access to patented medicines. The twin issue of IP and ‘access to patented medicines’ can hardly be separated.

Same old contentious example of ‘Glivec Access Program’:

The example of ‘Glivec Access Program’ does not appear to have many takers within the experts either for well-argued reasons.

Even then, to substantiate the point that the IP issues in India are not related to ‘access to patented medicines’, the US Chamber of Commerce states, yet again:

“In the case of Glivec, Novartis provided the leukemia drug to 95 per cent of patient population for free. The annual cost for Glivec generic treatment is approximately three to for times the average annual income in India”.

It is worth noting that the Swiss drug-maker Novartis reportedly gave the same example while defending the patent protections of Glivec before the Supreme Court without success. The apex judiciary ultimately dismissed the case last year.

Post Glivec judgment, the same ‘patient access program’ was debates in television programs too. However, its relevance for enhancing access could not be established in either of these two high profile public deliberations, as there were hardly any takers.

That said, I do not have any inkling, whether the protagonists of this much-touted “Glivec Access Program” would at anytime, in future, be able to establish their claim beyond any reasonable doubt that, ‘95 percent of the total patients population suffering from chronic myeloid leukemia receive Glivec free of cost from Novartis’.

Visible ‘Chink in its Armor’:

Not so long ago, Global CEO of Bayer reportedly proclaimed in public that:

“Bayer didn’t develop its cancer drug, Nexavar (sorafenib) for India but for Western Patients that can afford it.”

In tandem various other tough uttering, well crafted by the global communication agencies of ‘Big Pharma’, followed on the same IPR related issues, projecting its tough monolithic dimension.

However, after keenly watching a good number of much contentious moves being taken on IP and various other related areas by its lobby groups, both in India and overseas, it appears that all constituents of the ‘Big Pharma’ are not on the same page for all these issues, clearly exposing the ‘Chink in its Armor’, as it were.

Let me now give some examples, spanning across various issues, to vindicate this point:

I. Differences on ‘public disclosure of all Clinical Trial data’:

As discussed in my blog post earlier, The Guardian reported an incident on the above issue in July 2013. The article stated that the global pharmaceutical industry has “mobilized” an army of patient groups to lobby against the plan of European Medicines Agency (EMA) to force pharma companies publishing all Clinical Trial (CT) results in a public database for patients’ interest.

Important global pharma industry associations strongly resisted to this plan. The report indicated that a leaked letter from two large pharma trade associations, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) of the United States and the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA), had drawn out the above strategy to combat this move of EMA.

The Chink:

However despite this grand strategy, some constituents of Big Pharma, such as, Abbott, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Johnson & Johnson decided to disclose the results of all applicable/covered clinical trials, regardless of outcome, in a publicly accessible clinical trials results database.

II. Differences on ‘leaked pharma lobbying plan against South African draft IP Policy’:

February 3, 2014 issue of ‘The Lancet’ states, among other issues, the draft IP policy of South Africa seeks to address patent ever-greening, a contentious strategy in which drug firms tweak formulations to extend the 20-year life of a patent.

The leaked 9 page document of the PR firm, Public Affairs Engagement (PAE), titled, ‘Campaign to Prevent Damage to Innovation from the Proposed Draft National IP Policy in South Africa’, was reportedly prepared for ‘Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA)’ based at Washington DC and the lobby group representing research-based pharmaceutical companies in South Africa – ‘Innovative Pharmaceuticals Association of South Africa (IPASA)’.

The Chink:

As deliberated in my earlier blog post, when the above lobbying plan was leaked out, Swiss drug maker Roche and Denmark’s Novo-Nordisk reportedly resigned from the IPASA. Both the companies said that neither do they support this campaign nor have they given any approval to it and hence they are resigning from IPASA. However, the above report quoting IPASA states, “IPASA maintains that the departure of Roche and Novo-Nordisk did not weaken the association’s position.”

III. Other recent major differences within ‘Big Pharma’ constituents:

The Chink:

A. Merck Sereno:

Indian pharma regime may appear to be not encouraging or protecting innovation to the US Chamber of commerce, but one of the oldest constituents of the ‘Big Pharma’ – Merck Sereno has reportedly articulated quite a different take on this score.

In an interview to ‘The Economic Times’, Stefan Oschmann, member of the executive board and CEO, Merck, Germany made some very important observations on:

Patentability:

“Some of the strategies used in the past were developing 20 products and slightly differentiating them. That doesn’t work anymore. This industry has to do its home work.” He added that it makes little sense to adopt a confrontationist attitude towards sensitive issues.

Access:

Oschmann said, “Companies are rightly or wrongly criticized in spending all their money on 20 percent of the richest people of the world and neglecting the rest of the population. This is changing.”

Pricing:

He would not criticize governments such as India for trying to protect consumers from spiraling health-care costs. “Pricing and tier-pricing are worth looking into”.

Governments across emerging markets have been trying to find a way to the same challenges of increasing access to affordable healthcare. Oschmann feels, “This is legitimate to any government. What matters is rules are transparent, fair and non-discriminatory. Rules shouldn’t be used as a tool for industrial policy to only foster local industry.”

Another Chink:

B. GlaxoSmithKline:

Another icon in the global pharmaceutical industry Sir Andrew Witty, the CEO of GlaxoSmithKline, reportedly commented a few months ago on the following, with a pragmatic approach to the situation:

Pricing:

“I think it is wholly reasonable for a country that is having a tremendous growth with challenges has to think about pricing. I don’t think that it is a ridiculous proposition. Of course it hurts the period you go through that price adjustments, there are alternative ways to achieve and having a good dialogue may create positive ways to do it.”

Patented medicines:

“I am not one of those CEOs who is gonna stand here and say that you have to have a same approach as you have in other country. India is a very unusual country. It starts from different place than a Britain or a France or a USA, therefore we have to think about what is the right way for India to balance its needs.”

IP:

Sir Andrew emphasized, “And the key to that isn’t to get rid of patents; the key to that is to fix the R&D and manufacturing processes. And that’s what we’ve got to realize in the world we are going to be living in the next 30 or 40 years; companies cannot just turn up and have any price they want. Companies will have to come with a competitive and efficient business model, which will bring real innovation to the people.”

Conclusion: 

Culling all these important developments together, while traveling back in recent times, it does appear, whether the issues are on IP, access or even pricing of medicines, seemingly overpowering might (or may just be simple bullying tactics) of US Chamber of commerce is drowning some very important ‘Big Pharma’ constituents’ voices and numbing many others, despite a visible ‘Chink in its Armor’.

By: Tapan J. 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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