Pharmaceutical innovation and Public Health Interest: Ways to achieving the dual objectives

Healthcare industry in general and the pharmaceutical sector in particular have been experiencing  a plethora of innovations not only to cure and effectively manage ailments to improve the quality of life, but also to help increasing overall disease-free life expectancy of the population with various types of treatment and disease management options. Unfortunately despite all these, over half the global population is still denied of basic healthcare needs and support.

A 2011 official estimate of the current world population reads as 6.93 billion. Out of which over three billion live with a subsistence of less than US$ 2 per day. Another billion population is surviving on even less than US$ 1 per day. According to published reports around 18 million people die from poverty-related causes across the world, every year.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that over a billion population of the world still suffer from neglected tropical diseases.

On February 3, 2012, quoting a ‘World Bank and PwC report’, ‘The Economic Times’ reported that “70% of Indians spend all their income on healthcare and buying drugs.”

In a situation like this, challenges that the governments and the civil society are facing in many developing and to some extent even in some developed countries (although for different reasons), are multi-factoral. It has been well established that the humongous global healthcare challenges are mostly of economic origin.

In such a scenario, ongoing heated debate on innovation, Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) and public health interest keeps gaining momentum all over the globe and has still remained unabated.

Argumentative Indians have also got caught in this raging debate. I reckon rightly so, as India is not only the largest democracy of the world contributing 16.7% of the global population, it is also afflicted with 21% of the global burden of disease. Thus, the reason for similar heated debate in our country is indeed no brainer to any one.

Thorny issues:

One of the thorny issues in this debate is the belief that huge R&D budgets of the global pharmaceutical companies are worked out without any consideration of relative value of such investments to the vast majority of population in our society, across the world. These thought leaders argue, as the poor cannot pay for the expensive innovative drugs, they are mostly denied of the fruits of pharmaceutical innovation in their battle against diseases.

These experts also say that safeguards built into the patent system in form of compulsory licenses are not usually broad enough to improve access to innovative medicines to a larger section of the society, whenever required.

In addition, they point out that wide scope of patent grants in areas of early fundamental research, quite often is strategically leveraged by the patentee to block further R&D in related areas without significant commercial considerations to them. Such a situation comes in the way of affordable innovative drug development for public health interest, when need arises.

Inadequate access to medicines in India:

The key issue in the country is even more complicated. Inadequate or lack of access to modern medicines reportedly impacts around 50% of our population. It is intriguing to fathom, why has the nation not been able to effectively address the challenge of access to relatively affordable high quality generic medicines to the deprived population of the society over a period of so many decades?

Thus IPR in no way be considered as the reason for poor access, at least, to generic medicines, especially in India. Neither, it is the reason for inadequate availability of affordable essential medicines for the diseases of the poor.

The key reason, as is widely believed, is inadequate focus on the deprived population to address their public health concerns by the government.

Pharmaceutical innovation and the burden of disease:

A study  titled, ‘Pharmaceutical innovation and the burden of disease in developing and developed countries’ of Columbia University and National Bureau of Economic Research, to ascertain the relationship across diseases between pharmaceutical innovation and the burden of disease both in the developed and developing countries, reported that pharmaceutical innovation is positively related to the burden of disease in the developed countries but not so in the developing countries.

The most plausible explanation for the lack of a relationship between the burden of disease in the developing countries and pharmaceutical innovation, as pointed out by the study, is weak incentives for firms to develop medicines for the diseases of the poor.

A healthy debate:

Many experts argue that greater focus on the development of new drugs for the diseases of the poor, should not be considered as the best way to address and eradicate such diseases in the developing countries. On the contrary, strengthening basic healthcare infrastructure along with education and the means of transportation from one place to the other could improve general health of the population of the developing world quite dramatically.

However, another school of experts think very differently. In their opinion, health infrastructure projects are certainly very essential elements of achieving longer-term health objectives of these countries, but in the near term, millions of unnecessary deaths in the developing countries can be effectively prevented by offering more innovative drugs at affordable prices to this section of the society.

Creation of IGWG by WHO:

Responding to the need of encouraging pharmaceutical innovation without losing focus on public health interest, in 2006 the ‘World Health Organization (WHO)‘ created the ‘Inter-governmental Working Group on Public Health, Innovation and Intellectual Property (IGWG)‘. The primary focus of IGWG is on promoting sustainable, needs-driven pharmaceutical R&D for the diseases that disproportionately affect developing countries.

‘Reward Fund’ for innovation and access – an idea:

A paper  titled, “Optional reward for new drug for developing countries” published by the Department of Economics, University of Calgary, Institute of Health Economics, proposed an optional reward fund for pharmaceutical innovation aimed at the developing world to the pharmaceutical companies, which would develop new drugs while ensuring their adequate access to the poor. The paper suggests that innovations with very high market value will use the existing patent system, as usual. However, the medicines with high therapeutic value but low market potential would be encouraged to opt for the optional reward system.

It was proposed that the optional reward fund should be created by the governments of the developed countries and charitable institutions to ensure a novel way for access to innovative medicines by the poor.

The positive effects of the debate:

One positive effect of this global debate is that some global pharmaceutical companies like Novartis, GSK and AstraZeneca have initiated their R&D activities for the neglected tropical diseases of the world like, Malaria and Tuberculosis.

Many charitable organizations like Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Clinton Foundation are allocating huge amount of funds for this purpose.

On January 30, 2012, on behalf of the research-based pharmaceutical industry, Geneva based International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) by a Press Release  announced donations of 14 billion treatments in this decade to support elimination or control of nine key Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs).

Without creating much adverse impact on pharmaceutical innovation ecosystem of the country, the Government of India is also gradually increasing its resource allocation to address the issue of public health, which is still less than adequate as of now.

All these newer developments and initiatives are definitely ushering in an era of positive change for a grand co-existence of pharmaceutical innovation and public health interest of the country, slow and gradual though, but surely a change for the better.

Innovation helps to improve public health:

In India, various stakeholders of the pharmaceutical industry feel that there is a need to communicate more on how innovation and IPR help rather than hinder public health. Some initiatives have already been taken in this direction with the pioneering ‘patent pool’ initiative of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in Europe and ‘Open Source Drug Discovery (OSDD)’ by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) of the Government of India.

The pace needs to be accelerated:

The pace of achieving the dual objectives of fostering pharmaceutical innovation without losing focus on public health has to be accelerated, though progress is being slowly made in these areas through various initiatives. Additional efforts are warranted for sustainability of these initiatives, which have not yet gained the status of robust and sustainable work models.

However in India, the government in power should shoulder the key responsibility garnering all resources to develop and implement ‘Universal Health Coverage’ through appropriate innovative healthcare reform measures. Such steps will help achieving the country its national goal of providing affordable healthcare to all.

At the same time, creation of a variant of ‘reward fund’ to encourage smaller pharmaceutical players of India to pursue pharmaceutical innovation needs to be considered expeditiously. This will help encouraging pharmaceutical innovation in a big way within the country.

Address the basic issue of poverty:

It is a well-accepted fact that the price is one of the key determinants to improve access to modern medicines to a vast majority of the population. However, the moot question remains how does one make medicines more affordable by not addressing effectively the basic issue of general poverty in the country? Without appropriately resolving this issue, affordability of medicines will continue remain a vexing problem and a critical issue to address public health in India.


Innovation, as is widely acknowledged, is the wheel of progress of any nation. This wheel should move on… on and on with the fuel of IPR, which is an economic necessity of the innovator to make the innovation sustainable.

In the book titled, ‘Pharmaceutical Innovation: Revolutionizing Human Health‘ the authors have illustrated how science has provided an astonishing array of medicines to effectively cope with human ailments over the last 150 years.

Moreover, pharmaceutical innovation is a very expensive process and grant of patents to the innovators is an incentive of the government to them for making necessary investments towards R&D projects to meet unmet needs of the patients. The system of patent grants also contributes to society significantly by making freely available patented information to other scientists to improve upon the existing innovation through non-infringing means.

Altruism, especially in the arena of public health, may be demanded by many for various considerations. Unfortunately, that is not how the economic model of pharmaceutical innovation and IPR works globally. Accepting this global reality, the civil society should deliberate on how innovation and IPR can best be used, in a sustainable manner for public health interest, especially for the marginalized section of the society.

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.