Public access to healthcare in India is a complex issue with several challenges. While India has been making progress over the years in improving healthcare access and reducing the burden of disease, there are still significant disparities in healthcare access and outcomes across the country. The three primary barriers continue to remain:
- Affordable access to quality healthcare: This arises out of the shortage of healthcare infrastructure and resources, more in rural areas. The shortage includes an inadequate number of doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals, as well as inadequate facilities and equipment.
- Cost of healthcare: While India has a largely publicly funded healthcare system, the quality of care in public hospitals is often poor, and many people are forced to opt for private healthcare, which can be expensive.
- Access to affordable drugs: Despite India being a major producer of generic drugs, many people in India still lack access to essential medicines. This is due in part to the high cost of branded medicines, which are often out of reach for many people, as well as a lack of availability of certain medicines in some areas.
Undoubtedly, this remains a weak area for the country, till date. Successive Indian governments have taken steps to address these challenges. However, public funding on healthcare as a percentage of GDP and implementation of policies to increase access to medicine, continue to remain below par. Much work needs to be done to ensure that all people have access to quality healthcare and essential medicines.
Amid this situation, especially on the international political front, drug MNCs are continuously blaming India for the fact that the Indian Patents Act is not robust enough to protect their drug patents on NMEs and technologies. For example, in its 2022 Special 301 Report, the USTR designated seven countries on the Priority Watch List. These are Argentina, Chile, China, India, Indonesia, Russia, and Venezuela. To give some more examples from the available reports:
- In February 2021, PhRMA, a trade group representing multinational pharmaceutical companies, raised concerns about India’s policies related to IP rights and access to medicines. PhRMA argued that India’s policies were undermining innovation and investment in the pharmaceutical industry, and that multinational pharmaceutical companies were facing difficulties in doing business in India.
- In March 2021, Pfizer’s CEO also expressed concerns about India’s policies related to IP rights and access to medicines. He said that Pfizer was facing challenges in obtaining patents for its products in India, and that the lack of adequate patent protection was discouraging investment in research and development.
- In May 2021, Novartis’s CEO criticized India’s policies related to IP rights and access to medicines. HE stated that the lack of adequate patent protection in India was discouraging innovation and investment in the pharmaceutical industry, and that multinational pharmaceutical companies were facing difficulties in doing business in India.
Against this backdrop, in today’s article I shall deliberate on this vexing issue – starting from some key grievances of drug MNCs in this regard. Thereafter we will look at the Indian industry response to drug MNCs’ concern about the robustness of the Indian Patents Acts. This could possibly help us to understand the key question – Is it then an attempt to exploit India’s weakness regarding inadequate overall access to medicines for monopolistic gain by the vested interest?
Key grievances of drug MNCs for poor access to medicines in India:
One can recall that the Patent Act in India was amended in 2005 to comply with the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement. The amendment made it more difficult for multinational pharmaceutical companies to obtain patents for their products in India for the ‘me too’ type of innovation, which has led to lower prices for medicines and increased access to affordable drugs for the Indian population.
However, drug MNCs generally argue that:
- The lack of adequate patent protection in India discourages innovation and investment in research and development, which ultimately limits the availability of new drugs for patients in India.
- They have also criticized the Indian government’s use of compulsory licensing, which allows the government to authorize a third party to produce a patented drug without the consent of the patent holder. They argue that this undermines their intellectual property rights and discourages investment in research and development, which ultimately limits access to new and innovative drugs for patients in India.
Counter argument by Indian companies:
Indian companies, on the contrary, defend their position and policies related to access to medicines and healthcare in India, and have responded to the accusations made by drug MNCs in the following ways:
- Provides adequate patent protection: The Indian Patents Act provides adequate IP protection, in accordance with the TRIPS agreement. They have also pointed out that the patent laws in India allow for the grant of patents for genuine inventions, while preventing the grant of frivolous or secondary patents (the me-too types), which can result in excessive monopolies and high prices for medicine.
- Encourage innovation: Indian policies have not discouraged innovation in the pharmaceutical industry. They have pointed out that Indian companies invest heavily in research and development and have developed several innovative drugs that have been approved by regulatory authorities in India and around the world.
- Rare occurrence of Compulsory licensing: The use of compulsory licensing is a legitimate tool under international law and is aimed at promoting public health and ensuring that life-saving drugs are accessible and affordable to patients in India. They have also pointed out that the use of compulsory licensing is a rare occurrence in India and is only used in exceptional circumstances.
Overall, Indian drug companies have emphasized their commitment to improving access to medicines and healthcare in India, while ensuring that their policies are in line with international laws and regulations. They have also emphasized the need for collaboration and dialogue with multinational pharmaceutical companies to find mutually acceptable solutions that benefit patients in India and around the world.
Examples of innovative drugs developed by Indian drug companies:
It’s interesting to note that in the same IP scenario, Indian companies with limited resources, are developing innovative drugs that have been approved by regulatory authorities around the world. Here are a few examples, as reported at different times:
- Lipaglyn: Developed by Zydus Cadila, Lipaglyn is the first-ever drug approved for the treatment of diabetic dyslipidemia. It has been approved in India and several other countries, including the European Union.
- Tafinlar: Developed by Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories, Tafinlar is a kinase inhibitor that has been approved by the US FDA for the treatment of advanced melanoma.
- Mycapssa: Developed by Sun Pharma, Mycapssa is a novel oral formulation of octreotide, a hormone therapy used to treat acromegaly. It has been approved by the US FDA.
- Saroglitazar: Developed by Zydus Cadila, Saroglitazar is a dual PPAR agonist that has been approved in India for the treatment of diabetic dyslipidemia and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).
- Nexavar: This much discussed drug, originally developed by Bayer and by Natco Pharma, is a kinase inhibitor that has been approved by the US FDA for the treatment of liver and kidney cancers.
The IP issues keep haunting India and are being captured in different Special 301 Reports of the USTR, even after The Indian Patents Act 2005 came into force – till 2022. Any change to this Act seems very unlikely now as this is an important piece of legislation that helps balance the interests of protecting intellectual property, promoting innovation and access to affordable medicines. Any dilution of this Act could have negative consequences for India and its citizens.
From this perspective, I reckon, any further pressure in this area may be construed as an attempt to exploit India’s weakness of inadequate access to medicines for monopolistic gain by vested interests.
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.