‘Incremental innovation’, related to the pharmaceutical industry, has become a point of raging debate in India. Over a period of time ‘not really a breakthrough’ but ‘incremental inventive steps’ to discover New Chemical Entities (NCE), which would offer significant benefits to the patients, are being considered as of critical importance by the stakeholders of the pharmaceutical industry, the world over. Such types of innovations are being termed as ‘incremental innovation’ , with underlying implied meaning of ‘frivolous’ nature of the innovation, to some section of people.
Most innovations in the pharmaceutical industry have always been ‘incremental’ in nature:
We have been observing such ‘incremental innovation’ from ‘Penicillin era‘ with different derivatives of penicillins, right through to ‘Quinolone era’ with ciprofloxacin, ofloxacin, sparfloxacin etc to ‘H2 receptor antagonists’ with cimetidine, ranitidine, roxatidine to ‘proton pump inhibitors’ with omeprazole, esomeprazole, rabeprazole etc.
We see such important ‘incremental innovation’ with many successful drugs across various disease areas. How many different varieties of ‘statins’, ‘betablockers’, ‘ace inhitors’ etc we have been prescribed by the medical profession over so many years with amazing results? This trend continues to offer better and better treatment options to the patients through the medical profession, across the world.
Unfortunately ‘incremental innovation’ has become a contentious issue in India. Section 3d of the Indian Patents Act 2005 has become a key barrier to continue with this process of innovation, in search of better and better medicines. ‘Breakthrough innovations’, which are very important though, are not as frequent in the pharmaceuticals industry, just as in many other industries, including Information technology (IT). ‘Incremental innovations’ are, therefore, the bedrock to improve the types of medications to treat various disease conditions.
A quick comparison with China:
As reported by the Department of Commerce of the U.S Government, domestic consumption of medicines both in India and China is around 70% of the domestic productions of the respective countries. These medicines are available at a very reasonable price to the local populations.
Fuelled by strong domestic demand, coupled with exports to other countries, the pharmaceutical industry in both India and China are showing impressive growth, China being ahead of India in both pace of growth, as well as in terms of market size.
Why some key IPR issues, like ‘incremental innovation’, are facing stiff opposition in India when it is not so in China?
Intellectual Property Regime (IPR) is now in place in both the countries. However, criteria of ‘patentability’, as mentioned above, still remain a contentious issue in India. The issue of ‘access to affordable modern medicines’ is being unnecessarily dragged into the discussion of IPR related issues, where resolution of each of these two issues warrants totally different types of approaches.
The issue of ‘access’ and ‘affordability’ of medicines must be addressed with all earnestness by all concerned, but surely, I repeat, with a different kind and sets of measures. Mixing IPR issues with the issue of ‘access to affordable modern medicines’ sends a wrong message, which would mean that IPR is the cause of this problem in India or in other words, IPR has aggravated this problem since January 1, 2005, the day the new Patents Act came into force in India. This definitely is not the reality in our country.
As I have been saying repeatedly, why then from 1972 to 2005, when pharmaceutical products patents were not being granted, the access to affordable modern medicines were denied to 650 million population of India? The solution to this problem, in my view, lies in effectively addressing the issue of healthcare infrastructure, healthcare delivery and healthcare financing (health insurance for all strata of society) with an integrated approach and in tandem through Public Private Partnership (PPP) initiatives.
Is this issue cropping up because of intense pressure and public opinion created by over 20,000 small to medium scale producers of generic drugs, who have grown within the industry in a much protected environment created by the Government of India and had thrived in business by introducing copycat versions of innovators drugs for over three decades, during the old paradigm?
Large Indian companies are by and large in favour of IPR:
The large Indian Pharmaceutical Companies like Piramal Healthcare support the new IPR regime, envisaging the benefits that it will bring to the country in general and the domestic pharmaceutical industry in particular, in medium to longer term. These benefits will not only come from the fruits of their R&D initiatives, but also through various emerging opportunities of business collaboration in areas of their respective strengths, with the Multi National Corporations (MNCs) across the globe.
The Indian pharmaceutical industry, which had registered a double digit CAGR growth rate over the past decade, is poised to record a turnover of U.S$ 20 billion by 2015, as reported by Mckinsey & Co. Even at that time patented products are expected to contribute just about 10% of the total market and balance 90% of the market will continue to be dominated by low cost branded generic drugs.
Indian Pharmaceutical Industry has potential to emerge as an international force to reckon with. But will it..?
Within knowledge based industries, after meteoric success of the Information Technology (IT), Indian pharmaceutical industry armed with its fast growing biotech sector, has all the potential to be a major global force to reckon with. It just needs to foster the culture of innovation. One will feel happy to note that the Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP) of the Government of India has started taking, at least, some initiatives towards this direction.
The key issues of ‘patentability‘ together with lack of a strong regulatory framework for effective patent enforcement and data protection are becoming barriers to development of international collaboration in the space of pharmaceutical research and development in India.
Why is China different?
From the beginning of 90’s China initiated its reform processes in the IPR area, which may not be perfect though, as yet. However, since 1998 with stricter regulations on pharmaceutical manufacturing and introducing Drug Management Law, China to a great extent regulated entry of ‘fringe players’ in the pharmaceutical business. It enacted TRIPS compliant patent laws in 2002, extending pharmaceutical product patent for 20 years and regulatory data protection (RDP) for 6 years.
Currently China is focusing more on biotech drugs and has wheezed past India in terms of success in this important sector of the healthcare industry, though they have still miles to go to catch up with the developed world in this space. With the creation of innovative environment within the country, China is fast getting international recognition and collaboration, in genomic and stem cell research and technology.
In the pharmaceutical sector also China has brought in significant regulatory reforms since 2001. Because of its stronger IPR regime than India and other important regulatory reform measures that the country has been undertaking, China is racing past India to become one of the largest markets of the global pharmaceutical industry. In this process, China is attracting far more foreign direct investments (FDI) than India, almost in all verticals of the pharmaceutical industry, from R&D, clinical trials to contract research and manufacturing.
Where India scores over China:
Quality of co-operation and relationship between global pharmaceutical companies and the domestic Chinese pharmaceutical industry is believed to be not as good as what is prevailing in the Indian pharmaceutical industry. There are many reasons for such difference, language being the key reason. In China, English is still not a very popular language, in sharp contrast to India. This limits effective human interaction with the foreigners in China. In the area of, especially, pharmaceutical chemistry, Indian scientists are considered to have a clear edge over their Chinese counterparts.
Chinese policy makers are gradually trying to shed off their protectionist’s attitude in the globalization process.
Steps taken by China to encourage innovation are far more encouraging than what is being done in India. Global pharmaceutical companies are finding China more attractive than India to expand their business. As the saying goes, ‘proof of pudding is in its eating’, predominantly because of this reason, FDI for the pharmaceutical sector is coming more in China than in India.
Instead of creating drivers, is India creating barriers to innovation?
It is indeed unfortunate that the Indian law differentiates innovation based on its types and denies grant of patent for ‘incremental innovation’, which is the bedrock of progress for the pharmaceutical industry. For this reason section 3d of Indian Patent Acts 2005 does not consider the ‘salts, esters, polymorphs and other derivatives of known substances unless it can be shown that they differ significantly in properties with regard to efficacy’, patentable.
Strong propaganda campaign unleashed by the vested interests alleging rampant violation of section 3d by the Indian Patent Office (IPO) is another case in point. Interestingly the aggrieved parties decided to fight this issue through media, avoiding the legal route for redressal of their grievances. They on record cited a hilarious reason for the same that no lawyer in India is coming forward to fight their cases, at the behest of the MNCs.
The way forward:
To encourage innovation within a TRIPS compliant IPR regime, as one sees in China,
stereotyping innovations as ‘breakthrough’ or ‘incremental’ will dampen the spirit of innovative culture within the country. Inventive steps in an innovative process of a pharmaceutical product are directed to satisfy some important needs of the patients. As I said before, most innovations, which are an integral part of the progress of this industry, have been ‘incremental’ in nature. Thus ignoring ‘incremental innovation’ in India could be counterproductive, in more than one way.
Investments required towards R&D that a ‘breakthrough type’ innovation would warrant are very high. Indian pharmaceutical industry will have a serious limitation in that direction. The path of ‘incremental innovation’ ably backed by a strong IPR enforcement process, would, I reckon, be the best way forward for the Indian players to compete effectively with global innovator companies, leave aside their Chinese counterparts.
Any innovation, which has gone through inventive steps, even if it is ‘incremental’ in nature, should not be considered ‘frivolous’. It demeans the very process of innovation.
Raising various public sensitive and emotive issues on product patents and combining it with issues of ‘access’ and ‘affordability’ of modern medicines, some powerful lobby of vested interests may seriously retard the progress of India. The Government of India should recognize that it will very adversely affect the country in its pursuit of excellence in the field of research and development, in medium to longer term.
Such emotive misconceptions are compelling the policy makers to divert their attention from the root cause, which I have enumerated above, of the issue of ‘access to affordable modern medicines’ to the vast majority of Indian population.
In my earlier article, I suggested a public private partnership (PPP) model to address these critical healthcare issues. Examples of such PPP are already there in India in states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
Astute policy makers of the Government of India, I am sure, will soon realize that encouraging, rewarding and protecting patents through a robust TRIPS compliant IPR framework would enable India to place itself ahead of China, as the choicest destination for the global pharmaceutical industry.
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.