Patent Conundrum: Ignoring India Will Just Not be Foolhardy, Not An Option Either

The recent verdict of the Supreme Court against Novartis, upholding the decision of the Indian Patent Office (IPO) against grant of patent to their cancer drug Glivec, based on Section 3(d) of the Indian Patents Act, has caused a flutter and utter discontentment within the global pharmaceutical industry across the world.

However, on this verdict, the Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Pascal Lamy has reportedly opined, “Recent decisions by the courts in India have led to a lot of protest by pharmaceutical companies. But decisions made by an independent judiciary have to be respected as such.”

The above decision on Glivec came close on the heels of IPO’s decision to grant its first ever Compulsory License (CL) to the Indian drug manufacturer Natco, last year, for the kidney cancer drug Nexavar of Bayer.

Interestingly, no member of the World Trade Organization has raised any concern on these issues, as the Head of WTO, Lamy recently confirmed, No country has objected to India issuing compulsory license or refusing patent for drugs.” He further added, TRIPS provides flexibilities that allow countries to issue compulsory licenses for patented medicines to address health urgencies.”

That said, simmering unhappiness within innovator companies on various areas of Indian patent laws is indeed quite palpable. Such discontent being expressed by many interested powerful voices is now reverberating in the corridors of power both in India and overseas.

Point and Counterpoint:

Although experts do opine that patent laws of India are well balanced, takes care of public health interest, encourage innovation and discourage evergreening, many global innovator companies think just the opposite. They feel, an appropriate ecosystem to foster innovation does not exist in India and their IP, by and large, is not safe in the country. The moot question is, therefore, ‘Could immediate fallout of this negative perception prompt them to ignore India or even play at a low key in this market?’

Looking at the issue from Indian perspective:

If we take this issue from the product patent perspective, India could probably be impacted in the following two ways:

  1. New innovative products may not be introduced in India
  2. The inflow of Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) in the pharma sector may get seriously restricted.

Let us now examine the possible outcome of each of these steps one at a time.

Will India be deprived of newer innovative drugs?

If the innovator companies decide to ignore India by not launching such products in the country, they may take either of the following two steps:

  1. Avoid filing a patent in India
  2. File a patent but do not launch the product

Keeping the emerging scenario in perspective, it will be extremely challenging for the global players to avoid the current patent regime in India, even if they do not like it. This is mainly because of the following reasons:

1. If an innovator company decides not to file a product patent in India, it will pave the way for Indian companies to introduce copy-cat versions of the same in no time, as it were, at a fractional price in the Indian market.

2. Further, there would also be a possibility of getting these copycat versions exported to the unregulated markets of the world from India at a very low price, causing potential business loss to the innovator companies.

3. If any innovator company files a product patent in India, but does not work the patent within the stipulated period of three years, as provided in the patent law of the country, in that case any Indian company can apply for CL for the same with a high probability of such a request being granted by the Patent Controller. 

A market too attractive to ignore:

India as a pharmaceutical market is quite challenging to ignore, despite its ‘warts and moles’ for various reasons. The story of increasing consumption of healthcare in India, including pharmaceuticals, especially when the country is expected to be one of the top 10 pharmaceutical markets in the world, is too enticing for any global player to ignore, despite unhappiness in various areas of business.

Increasing affordability of the fast growing middle-class population of the country will further drive the growth of this market, which is expected to register a value turnover of US$50 billion by 2020, as estimated by PwC.

PwC report also highlights that a growing and increasingly sophisticated pharmaceutical industry of India is gradually becoming a competitor of global pharma in some key areas, on the one hand and a potential partner in others, as is being witnessed today by many.

Despite urbanization, nearly 70 percent of the total population of India still lives in the rural villages. Untapped potential of the rural markets is expected to provide another boost to the growth momentum of the industry.

Too enticing to exit:

Other ‘Enticing Factors’ for India, in my views, may be considered as follows:

  • A country with 1.13 billion populations and a GDP of US$ 1.8 trillion in 2011 is expected to grow at an average of 8.2 percent in the next five-year period.
  • Public health expenditure to more than double from 1.1 percent of the GDP to 2.5 percent of GDP in the Twelfth Five Year Plan period (2012-17)
  • Government will commence rolling out ‘Universal Health Coverage’ initiative
  • Budget allocation of US$ 5.4 billion announced towards free distribution of essential medicines from government hospitals and health centers.
  • Greater plan outlay announced for NRHM, NUHM and RSBY projects.
  • Rapidly growing more prosperous middle class population of the country.
  • Fast growing domestic generic drug manufacturers who will have increasing penetration in both local and emerging markets.
  • Rising per capita income of the population and relative in-efficiency of the public healthcare systems will encourage private healthcare services of various types and scales to flourish.
  • Expected emergence of a robust health insurance model for all strata of society as the insurance sector is undergoing reform measures.
  • Fast growing Medical Tourism.
  • World-class local outsourcing opportunities for a combo-business model with both patented and branded generic drugs.

Core issues in patent conundrum:

I reckon, besides others, there are three core issues in the patent conundrum in India as follows, other issues can be sorted out by following:

1. Pricing’ strategy of patented products: A large population across the globe believes that high prices of patented products severely restrict their access to many and at the same time increases the cost of healthcare even for the Governments very significantly.

2. To obtain a drug patent in India, passing the test of inventive steps will not just be enough, the invention should also pass the acid test of patentability criteria, to prevent evergreening, as enshrined in the laws of the land. Many other countries are expected to follow India in this area, in course of time. For example, after Philippines and Argentina, South Africa now reportedly plans to overhaul its patent laws by “closing a loophole known as ‘ever-greening’ used by drug companies to extend patent protection and profits”. Moreover, there does not seem to be any possibility to get this law amended by the Indian Parliament now or after the next general election.

3. Probably due to some legal loopholes, already granted patents are often violated without following the prescribed processes of law in terms of pre or post – grant challenges before and after launch of such products. There is a need for the government to plug all such legal loopholes, after taking full stock of the prevailing situation in this area, without further delay.

Some Global CEOs spoke on this issue:

In this context the Global CEO of GSK commented in October 18, 2012 that while intellectual property protection is an important aspect of ensuring that innovation is rewarded, the period of exclusivity in a country should not determine the price of the product. Witty said, ‘At GSK we will continuously strive to defend intellectual property, but more importantly, defend tier pricing to make sure that we have appropriate pricing for the affordability of the country and that’s why, in my personal view, our business in India has been so successful for so long.’

Does all in the global pharma industry share this view? 

Not really. All in the global pharmaceutical industry does not necessarily seem to share the above views of Andrew Witty and believe that to meet the unmet needs of patients, the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) of innovative products must be strongly protected by the governments of all countries putting in place a robust product patent regime and the pricing of such products should not come in the way at all.

The industry also argues that to recover high costs of R&D and manufacturing of such products together with making a modest profit, the innovator companies set a product price, which at times may be perceived as too high for the marginalized section of the society, where government intervention is required more than the innovator companies. Aggressive marketing activities, the industry considers, during the patent life of a product, are essential to gain market access for such drugs to the patients.

In support of the pharmaceutical industry the following argument was put forth in a recent article:

“The underlying goal of every single business is to make money. People single out pharmaceutical companies for making profits, but it’s important to remember that they also create products that save millions of lives.”

How much then to charge for a patented drug? 

While there is no single or only right way to arrive at the price of an IPR protected medicine, how much the pharmaceutical manufacturers will charge for such drugs still remains an important, yet complex and difficult issue to resolve, both locally and globally.

A paper titled, “Pharmaceutical Price Controls in OECD Countries”, published by the US Department of Commerce after examining the drug price regulatory systems of 11 OECD countries concluded that all of them enforce some form of price controls to limit spending on pharmaceuticals. The report also indicated that the reimbursement prices in these countries are often treated as de facto market price. Moreover, some OECD governments regularly cut prices of even those drugs, which are already in the market. 

Should India address ‘Patented Products’ Pricing’ issue with HTA model?

Though some people hate the mechanism of Health Technology Assessment (HTA) to determine price of a patented drug, I reckon, it could be a justifiable and logical answer to price related pharmaceutical patent conundrum in India.

Health Technology Assessment, as many will know, examines the medical, economic, social and ethical implications of the incremental value of a medical technology or a drug in healthcare.

HTA, in that process, will analyze the costs of inputs and the output in terms of their consequences or outcomes. With in-depth understanding of these components, the policy makers decide the value of an intervention much more precisely.

Companies like, Merck, Pfizer and GSK have reportedly imbibed this mechanism to arrive at a value of the invention. National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authorities (NPPA) may well consider this approach for a well judged, scientific and transparent pricing decision mechanism in India, especially for innovative new drugs.

Could local manufacturing be an option?

Considering relatively higher volume sales in India, to bring down the price, the global companies may consider manufacturing their patented products in India with appropriate technology transfer agreements being in place and could even make India as one of their export hubs, as a couple of their counterparts have already initiated.

Accepting the reality responsibly:

In view of the above, the global pharmaceutical players, as experts believe, should take note of the following factors. All these could help, while formulating their India-specific game plan to be successful in the country, without worrying much about invocation of Compulsory License (CL) for not meeting ‘Reasonably Affordable Price’ criterion, as provided in the Patents Act of the country:

  • While respecting IPR and following Doha declaration, the government focus on ‘reasonably affordable drug prices’ will be even sharper due to increasing pressure from the Civil Society, Indian Parliament and also from the Courts of the country triggered by ‘Public Interest Litigations (PIL)’
  • India will continue to remain within the ‘modest-margin’ range for the pharmaceutical business with marketing excellence driven volume turnover.
  • Although innovation will continue to be encouraged with IPR protection, the amended Patents Act of India is ‘Public Health Interest’ oriented, including restrictions on patentability, which, based on early signals, many other countries are expected to follow as we move on.
  • This situation though very challenging for many innovator companies, is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, even under pressure of various “Free Trade Agreements (FTA)”.  

Sectors Attracting Highest FDI Equity inflows:

When one looks at the FDI equity inflow from April 2000 to March 2013 period as follows, it does not appear that FDI inflow in Drugs and Pharmaceuticals had any unusual impact due to ‘Patent Conundrums’ in the country at any time:

Ranks Sector

US$ Million

1. Service Sector

37,151

2. Construction Development:(Township, Housing, Built-up infrastructure)

22,008

3 Telecommunication(Radio paging, Cellular mobile,Basic telephone services)

12,660

4 Computer Software &Hardware

11,671

5 Drugs & Pharmaceuticals

10,309

6 Chemical

8,861

7 Automobile Industry

8,061

8 Power

7,828

9 Metallurgical Industries

7,434

10 Hotel & Tourism

6,589

Further, if we look at the FDI trend of the last three years, the conclusion probably will be similar.

Year

US$ Million.

2010-11

177.96

2011-12

2,704.63

2012-13

1,103.70

(Source: Fact Sheet on Foreign Investments, DIPP, Government of India)

Conclusion:

In search of excellence in India, global pharmaceutical companies will need to find out innovative win-win strategies adapting themselves to the legal requirements for business in the country, instead of trying to get the laws changed.

India, at the same time, should expeditiously address the issue of blatant patent infringements by some Indian players exploiting the legal loopholes and set up fast track courts to resolve all IP related disputes without inordinate delay.

Responsible drug pricing, public health oriented patent regime, technology transfer/local manufacturing of patented products and stringent regulatory requirements in all pharmaceutical industry related areas taking care of patients’ interest, are expected to be the key areas to address in the business models of global pharmaceutical companies for India.

Moreover,it is worth noting that any meaningful and long term FDI in the pharmaceutical industry of India will come mostly through investments in R&D and manufacturing. Such FDI may not be forthcoming without any policy compulsions, like in China. Hence, many believe, the orchestrated bogey of FDI for the pharmaceutical industry in India, other than brownfield acquisitions in the generics space, is just like dangling a carrot, as it were, besides being blatantly illusive.

Even with all these, India will continue to remain too lucrative a pharmaceutical market to ignore by any. Thus, I reckon, despite a high decibel patent conundrum, any thought to ignore or even be indifferent to Indian pharmaceutical market by any global player could well be foolhardy.

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.

 

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.