Innovation, IPR and Altruism in Public Health

The ongoing debate on innovation, Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) and public health is gaining momentum.Even in India, the experts and various stakeholders of the pharmaceutical industry got involved in an interactive discussion with the Director General of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), Dr. Francis Gurry on November 12, 2009 at New Delhi, on this subject among many other issues.During the discussion it appeared that there is a need to communicate more on how innovation and IPR help rather than hinder public health. At the same time there is an urgent need to consider by all the stakeholders of the pharmaceutical industry how the diseases of the developing countries may be addressed, the best possible way. Some initiatives have already been taken in this respect with the pioneering ‘patent pool’ initiative of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and ‘Open Source Drug Discovery (OSDD)’ by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) of the Government of India.Innovation, IPR, Access to medicines and the neglected people of India:

In India, the key issue is lack of access to modern medicines by over 650 million people of its population. Have we, by now, been able to effectively address the issue of access to existing affordable generic medicines to these people, which are mainly due to lack of adequate healthcare infrastructure, healthcare delivery system and healthcare financing models? Thus IPR does not seem to be a key reason for such poor access to medicines in India; at least for now. Neither, is the reason due to inadequate availability of affordable essential medicines for the neglected tropical diseases. The reason, as is widely believed, is inadequate focus on the neglected people to address their public health issues.

How can medicines be made more affordable without addressing the basic issue of general poverty?

It is a known fact that the price of medicines is one of the key determinants to improve access to medicines. However, the moot question is how does one make a medicine more affordable without addressing the basic issue of general poverty of people? Without appropriately addressing the issue of poverty in India, affordability of medicines will always remain as a vexing problem and a public health issue.

The positive effect of the debate on innovation, IPR and public health:

One positive effect of this global debate is that many global pharmaceutical companies like Novartis, GSK, and Astra Zeneca etc. have initiated their R&D activities for the neglected tropical diseases of the world.

Many charitable organizations like Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Clinton Foundation etc. are allocating huge amount of funds for this purpose. The Government of India is also gradually increasing its resource allocation to address the issue of public health, which is still less than adequate though.

These developments are definitely bringing in a change, slow and gradual – a change for the better. However, all these are still grossly inadequate and insufficient to effectively address the public health issues of India for the suffering majority.

Still much is needed to be done:

Still much is needed to be done for the developing countries like, India in the space of public health, though since last decades significant progress has been made in this area through various initiatives as mentioned above. Additional efforts are warranted for the sustainability of these initiatives, which have not yet gained the status of robust and sustainable work models. However, the government in power should shoulder the key responsibility to garner all resources, develop and implement the new healthcare financing models through appropriate healthcare reform measures, to achieve its long cherished goal of providing affordable public healthcare to all.


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.

Altruism, especially in the area of public health, may be desirable by many. Unfortunately, that is not how the economic model of 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, more so, for the marginalized population of a country.

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.