‘Big Pharma’ Prowls Falter: Triggers Off Yet Another Critical Debate

The ‘Big Pharma’ prowls faltered yet again exposing the ‘fault line’ to all, when the GSK global head honcho, a pharma icon in his own right, Sir Andrew Witty supported the pharmaceutical policy of India, while in the country earlier this month. This support is quite in contrary to arrogant displeasure being expressed by his MNC counterparts against the pharma regime in India up until now.

Sir Andrew reportedly spoke against the usual pharma MNC practices of charging very high prices for patented medicines during an interview and said that multinationals need to look at things from India’s perspective. 

The above comment, when analyzed especially in context of one of the recent actions of Big Pharma MNCs complaining in writing to President Obama against India’s prevailing pharmaceutical regime, the fault line gets clearly visible.

In this context, a recent report captured the anger and desperation of Big Pharma. This hostility vindicates the general apprehensions in India that MNCs are once again pushing for a stringent patent regime in the country, against the general health interest of Indian patients for access to affordable newer medicines.

Quoting US Chamber of Commerce’s Global Intellectual Property Center another report reconfirmed the impatient prowl of the mighty lobby group in the corridors of power. This piece states, “Recent policy and judicial decisions (Glivec judgment and Nexavar) that invalidate intellectual property rights, which have been increasing in India, cast a daunting shadow over its otherwise promising business climate.” 

The ‘fault line’, thus surfaced, triggers off yet another critical debate, especially related to the slugfest on a stringent pharmaceutical product patent regime in India, as follows:

Does Stricter IPR Regime Spur Pharma Innovation?”

Global innovator companies strongly argue that stringent Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) and stricter enforcement of IP laws have strong link with fostering innovation leading to a robust economic growth for any nation.

However, another group of thought leaders opine just the opposite. They argue that strong IPR and IP laws have little, if any, to do with fostering innovation and economic growth, as there are no robust research findings to drive home the above point.

It has been noticed that the MNC lobby groups quite often very cleverly use their magic word ‘innovation’ on a slightest pretext with an underlying desire of having a ‘very strict patent regime’ in India. Thus they seem to be trying to mislead the common man, as if India is against innovation.

Comment of the Chairman of National Innovation Council of India:

On September 15, 2012, while delivering his keynote address in a pharmaceutical industry function, Dr. Sam Pitroda, the Chicago based Indian, creator of the telecom revolution in India, Chairman of the National innovation Council and the Advisor to the Prime Minister on Public Information, Infrastructure & Innovations, made a profound comment for all concerned to ponder, as follows:

“Everyone wants to copy the American model of development.  I feel that this model is not scalable, sustainable, desirable and workable.  We have to find an Indian Model of development which focuses on affordability, scalability and sustainability.

Recent Indian stand:

On March 5, 2013, the Government of India made a profound statement on the subject of ‘Innovation and Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs)’ at the TRIPS Council meeting covering the following points:

  • There is no direct correlation between IP and Innovation even for the Small and Medium Industries.
  • The technological progress even in the developed world had been achieved not through IP protection but through focused governmental interventions.
  • The proponents of this Agenda Item have reached the present stage of technological development by focusing solely on the development of their own domestic industry without caring for the IPRs of the foreigners or the right holders.
  • After achieving a high level of development, they are now attempting to perpetuate their hold on their technologies by making a push towards a ‘TRIPS plus’ regime.
  • Their agenda is not to create an environment where developing countries progress technologically, but to block their progress through stringent IP regime.
  • It is essential that the flexibilities provided by the TRIPS Agreement need to be secured at any cost, if the people in the developing countries are to enjoy the benefits of innovations.

A Wharton Professor’s view:

As the Wharton professor of Healthcare Management Mark V. Pauly has been quoted saying that the link between patent protection and innovation has never been definitely proven.

However, Pauly reportedly is aware that the innovator global pharma companies do say, ‘If you don’t allow us to reap the benefits of our R&D expenditure, we won’t put as much into it, and we won’t invent as many great things’.

However, the Wharton Professor counters it by saying, “The problem is that nobody really knows how much less innovation there would be if there were less patent protection. We just don’t know what the numbers are.”

The above report says, according to Pauly, the onus to prove that patent protection matters should be on the drug industry itself.

He argues, “Rather than always just insisting you should never limit intellectual property protection, they really ought to develop some evidence to show that without that protection, there would be an impact on the rate of adoption of new products. Everybody has an opinion, but nobody knows the facts.

A French Professor’s view:

In another WIPO seminar held on June 18, 2013, Margaret Kyle, a Professor at the Toulouse School of Economics and the Université de Toulouse I in France, reportedly presented preliminary findings of a study.

This paper explored in detail the impact of World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) in various areas related to the speed of launch, price, and volume of sales of drugs across countries and across different drug products.

In this study, as the above report states, Kyle analyzed the trade-off between the dynamic and static effects of Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs).

The dynamic effect of IPRs was considered as an incentive for innovation based on the general belief that patent protection, through granting market exclusivity, incentivizes companies to invest in the research and development (R&D) to develop new drugs.

On the other hand, the static effect of IPRs in the short term is that granting market exclusivity often leads to innovator companies pricing their products at levels, which will be unaffordable by a large number of patients, especially in lower-income countries.

Kyle explained that the results implied as follows:

  • IPRs are neither necessary nor sufficient to launch new pharmaceutical products.
  • The existence of a product patent does not always inhibit generic imitation, nor does the lack of such a patent necessarily deter an originator from making a product available in a given market.

Other eminent voices:

While highlighting that TRIPS-Plus intellectual property protection is passed by some developing countries in order to implement FTA obligations, another recent paper presents the following examples in support of the argument that there no correlation between strong IP laws and fostering innovation:

  • UK Commission on Intellectual Property Rights. Integrating Intellectual Property Rights and Development Policy. 2002. (Link)

“…Strong IP rights alone provide neither the necessary nor sufficient incentives for firms to invest in particular countries… The evidence that foreign investment is positively associated with IP protection in most developing countries is lacking.”

  • Robert L. Ostergard., Jr. “Policy Beyond Assumptions: Intellectual Property Rights and Economic Growth.” Chapter 2 of The Development Dilemma: The Political Economy of Intellectual Property Rights in the International System.  LFB Scholarly Publishing, New York. 2003

“…No consistent evidence emerged to show that IPR contributed significantly to economic growth cross-nationally.  Furthermore, when the nations are split into developed and developing countries, results to suggest otherwise did not emerge.”

  • Carsten Fink and Keith Maskus. “Why We Study Intellectual Property and What We Have Learned.” Chapter one of Intellectual Property and Development: Lessons from Economic Research. 2005. (Link)

“Existing research suggests that countries that strengthen their IPR are unlikely to experience a sudden boost in inflows of FDI.  At the same time, the empirical evidence does point to a positive role for IPRs in stimulating formal technology transfer.”

“Developing countries should carefully assess whether the economic benefits of such rules outweigh their costs. They also need to take into account the costs of administering and enforcing a reformed IPR system”

“We still know relatively little about the way technology diffuses internationally.”

  • Keith Mascus. “Incorporating a Globalized Intellectual Property Rights Regime Into an Economic Development Strategy.”  Ch. 15 of Intellectual Property, Growth and Trade. (ed. Mascus). Elsevier.  2008.

“Middle income countries must strike a complicated balance between promoting domestic learning and diffusion, through limited IP protection, and gaining greater access to international technologies through a strong regime… it makes little sense for these nations to adopt the strongly protectionist IP standards that exist in the U.S., the EU and other developed economies.  Rather, they should take advantage of the remaining policy space provided by the TRIPS Agreement.”

“It is questionable whether the poorest countries should devote significant development resources to legal reforms and enforcement of IPR.”

  • Kamal Saggi. “Intellectual Property Rights and International Technology Transfer via Trade and Foreign Direct Investment. Ch. 13 of Intellectual Property, Growth and Trade. (ed. Mascus). Elsevier.  2008.

“Overall, it is fair to say that the existing empirical evidence regarding the overall technology-transfer impacts of increased IPR protection in developing countries is inconclusive at this stage.  What is not yet clear is whether sufficient information flows will be induced to procure significant dynamic gains in those countries through more learning and local innovation.”

  • Alexander Koff, Laura Baughman, Joseph Francois and Christine McDaniel. “Study on the Economic Impact of ‘TRIPS-Plus’ Free Trade Agreements.”  International Intellectual Property Institute and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. August 2011.

“TRIPS-Plus IPRs viewed as ‘important, but not essential’ for attracting investment. Many other factors matter like, taxes, human capital, clustering, etc.”

Patients versus Patents:

Another recent  article on this subject states as follows:

“Compulsory licensing and stricter patentability standards allow domestic manufacturers to produce lower-cost versions of patented NCD medications and break into lucrative therapeutic areas, such as oncology, in which multinational drug firms are heavily invested.”

The paper clearly highlights, “If patients are pitted against patents, international support for IP protection—upon which drug firms and many other developed country industries now heavily rely—will again diminish.”

Yet another article published in The New England Journal of Medicine, July 17, 2013 states:

“Patents are government-granted monopolies. As monopolies, they can drive the prices of drugs up dramatically. For example, in 2000, when only patented antiretroviral drugs for Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) infection were widely available, they cost approximately $10,000 per person per year, even in very poor countries. Today, these same medicines cost $150 or less if they are purchased from Indian generics companies…. patents cause especially acute problems for access to medicines in developing countries – not only because of low incomes but also because insurance and price-control systems are often absent or inadequate.” 

A WHO Report:

To chart the way forward at the backdrop of ongoing global debate elated to the relationship between intellectual property rights, innovation and public health, the World Health Assembly decided in May 2003 to give an independent Commission the task of analyzing this key issue. Accordingly, the Director-General of WHO established the Commission in February 2004. This report titled, “Public health, innovation and intellectual property rights” was published in 2006 and articulated that neither innovation nor access depend on just intellectual property rights and highlighted, among others, the following:

  • Intellectual property rights have an important role to play in stimulating innovation in health-care products in countries where financial and technological capacities exist, and in relation to products for which profitable markets exist.
  • In developing countries, the fact that a patent can be obtained may contribute nothing or little to innovation if the market is too small or scientific and technological capability inadequate.
  • In the absence of effective differential and discounted prices, patents may contribute to increasing the price of medicines needed by poor people in those countries.
  • Although the balance of costs and benefits of patents will vary between countries, according to their level of development and scientific and technological infrastructure, the flexibility built into the TRIPS agreement allows countries to find a balance more appropriate to the circumstances of each country.

India – now the most attractive global investment destination:

Trashing the anger and displeasure of pharma MNCs, as per the latest international survey, India reportedly has emerged as the most attractive global investment destination followed by Brazil and China. It is worth noting that even recently, during April- June period of 2013, with a capital inflow of around US$ 1 billion, the pharma sector became the brightest star in the FDI landscape of India.


In the Indian context, a 2013 paper titled, “Intellectual Property Protection and Health Innovation: Concerns for India” published by Center for WTO Studies highlights that the regime change in the patent system has not been very supportive for improving access to medicines in India. It reiterates, it has not been established yet that a stricter patent regime in the developing countries like India, has helped health innovation and access to medicines at economically viable prices.

The paper recommends, although India is trying to incorporate all the flexibilities under TRIPS in its Patents Act, the ‘Indian Policy Makers’ should not give in to the pressure of western powers to make IPR more stringent in the country.

In the backdrop of arrogance exhibited by Big Pharma MNCs, in general, against Indian policies and judicial verdicts on this subject, the comments made by Sir Andrew on the issue, as deliberated above, are indeed profound and far reaching. However, it clearly exposes the fault line in the collective mindset of pharma MNCs, without any ambiguity.

I shall not be surprised either, if clever attempts are made now by the MNC lobby groups to negate or trivialize the profoundness of this visionary statement not just in India, but beyond its shores, as well.

Further, as stated above recent emergence of India as the most attractive global investment destination with pharma leading the deck is a point worth noting, more in the context of policy and statutes that India has decided to follow.

Be that as it may, it is beyond the scope of any doubt that innovation or for that matter encouraging innovation still remains the wheel of progress of any nation.

However, have we garnered enough evidence yet, to establish that stringent IPR regime with absolute pricing freedom would lead to fostering more innovation leading to well-being of people of the developing countries, like India?

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.




The Professor, Counterfeit Drugs, CDA Bill and the New Health Minister

Just a couple of days ago, I met Professor Sam Gupta, an American professor of Indian origin. Prof. Gupta has specialized in nuclear medicine and hails from a well reputed North American University. Dr. Gupta, like many others, had left the shores of India decades ago when he was just a student. During his long arduous journey on the beaten path of life, he almost lost contacts with his roots in India.
An incident that triggered intense passion in Prof. Gupta:

When I met him just the other day, I heard him passionately speaking about the menace of substandard and counterfeit medicines, in the world in general and India, in particular. He was reminiscing how had he decided to wage a war, as it were, against this injustice against humanity. Despite having a nuclear medicine background, Prof. Gupta is fighting this crusade against evil with an intense passion, as intense as it could possibly be.

The professor still teaches and researches on nuclear medicine in North America… but he spends all his balance time driven by this passion, to bring home some change in the uncertain treatment environment, involving well being of a large number of patients, especially in India. What then triggered this ‘burning desire’ in the mind of a seemingly quite and extremely polite Prof. Gupta?

Not a very long ago, a person, very dear and near to the professor, while visiting India became a tragic victim of a counterfeit medicine. Professor lost his dear one, in India. Intense sadness due to loss of this otherwise healthy individual, that too so suddenly, got converted into a potent rage in him… and… the rage into a passion… a passion to stop the menace of substandard and counterfeit medicines, in whatever way he possibly can.

Professor’s dear one is not the sole victim of spurious, substandard and counterfeit medicines in India. Such tragedy strikes many hundreds and thousands of Indians every year. We come to know very seldom and very little about such instances, for various reasons. Real reasons of most of these tragic deaths, usually remain unknown to the civil society, at large… but the ‘merchants of death’ keep making fast bucks with their cash counters constantly ringing. Heart rending cries for loss of human lives, because of their mischief, do not mean anything to them. To the regulators, ironically, price of medicines appears to be more important than the quality of medicines.

Minimum acceptable quality standards for medicines:

Though medicines should offer and promise maximum possible quality standards, in India we are satisfied with the ‘minimum acceptable quality standards’ even for medicines and of varying degree of quality, just as any other commodities. It is not unknown to many that in India, we have broadly two types of quality – one type of quality exists for the domestic consumption and use and the other type of quality is for people living outside India and mainly in the western world, which is termed as ‘exports quality’. ‘Exports quality’ products attract a premium in India to the common man, even in the 21st. century.

Varying degree of acceptable drug quality in India:

Just like ‘domestic’ and ‘exports’ quality, for medicines we have many acceptable quality standards, in India: GMP quality, WHO GMP quality, US-FDA quality just to name a few. It appears that our regulators are just satisfied in ensuring availability of cheaper priced medicines with ‘minimum acceptable’ or ‘varying’ quality standards. If not, why is there no concerted effort by the drug regulator to strike at the root cause of proliferation of substandard and counterfeit medicines in India? When we see so many regulators working so well to ensure ‘affordability’ of medicines, why is the drug regulator failing to stop proliferation of substandard and counterfeit medicines in the country, in a systematic way? Who is accountable, when a patient takes affordable medicines of poor quality and suffer from undesirable consequences? Some estimates indicate that at least 10% of medicines produced in India are substandard.

Some good initiatives were implemented and some equally good initiatives were stalled – why?

A major amendment in the Drugs & Cosmetics Act, 1940, proposed in October 2007 and enacted into a law in 2008, has increased the minimum jail term for counterfeit drug offenders from 5 to 10 years and the minimum fine for such offenses increased from Rs. 10,000 (about U.S$ 220) to Rs. 10 lakh (about U.S$ 22,000).

However, the amendment of the Drugs & Cosmetics Act, 1940 to create a Central Drug Authority (CDA) has not seen the light of the day, as yet, due to various vested interests. The CDA, if created, would have been responsible for the entire drug regulatory mechanism in India including all marketing approvals and uniform quality standards of medicines, across the country.

What happens today for manufacturing and marketing approval of drugs in India?

Currently, although the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) gives marketing approval of all new drugs, imported or domestic, the manufacturing permission of these drugs in India is granted by concerned state drug regulatory authorities. It is believed that there is a perceptible variation within the states in quality of inspection, monitoring and enforcement of various regulatory systems and maintenance of uniform drug quality standards.

It is worth noting that ‘new drug’ status of a formulation type, remains for four years. After this period the state drug authorities can grant marketing approval of such products. Huge regulatory quagmire created with unabated proliferation of Fixed Dose Combination products (FDC) in India, is a testimony of how the drug regulatory systems works in India.

Despite existence of such variation in standard from state to state, it is indeed an irony that drugs approved and produced in any state are allowed to be marketed and sold across India or even be exported outside the country. It is quite possible that substandard drug producers can locate themselves in states with weaker regulatory controls and make their cheaper substandard products available for sales across the country, making hundreds and thousands of innocent citizens vulnerable to a possible life threatening risk.

Drug regulatory mechanism deserves a revamp in India without further delay:

Some people believe that hectic efforts by politicians and vested interests from the states with weaker regulatory controls have prevented the CDA bill from getting translated into reality, showing scant respect to the need of patients who may not have any other option but to use these substandard drugs.

How does the western world care for their patients with high quality medicines?

In the western world, drug regulators have taken specific measures to ensure availability of highest quality of medicines for their citizens. It is for that reason Food and Drug Administration of the United States of America (US-FDA) has opened its establishment in India to ensure that the drugs, which are manufactured in India and exported to the USA, are of highest quality standards.

Lackadaisical approach of the Indian drug regulatory authorities has created an environment within the country where many pharmaceutical manufacturers, including some large ones have allegedly placed themselves in a peculiar ‘comfort zone’ by not following prescribed procedures of generating required essential documents, while manufacturing drugs of high quality standards.

Continuous living in such comfort zones led to the largest pharmaceutical company of India, facing ban of 30 of their product formulations in the USA in 2008, against the charge of ‘falsifying’ the product manufacturing documents – a stigma on the pride of India in general and the Indian pharmaceutical industry, in particular, which will remain till the issue is sorted out. As if this was not enough, close on its heel some more incidents came into light with the names of other top Indian companies falling under the scanner of US FDA for not conforming to their regulatory requirements related to drugs manufactured for use in the US market.

When regulators of other countries are so active, why then are our own drug regulators failing to clean up the menace of spurious, substandard and counterfeit medicines in India? Why important bills like CDA are being stalled by the vested interests with the help of politicians, exposing a large number of patients to medical risks?

Will the new government be any different?

I sincerely hope that our new Minister of Health, Shri Ghulam Nabi Azad will sincerely address this very pressing health issue for the country. I also believe that under his astute leadership, the menace of spurious, substandard and counterfeit medicines will receive due consideration of the cabinet and the CDA bill will soon be a law.

Till then…crusade of Prof. Gupta continues:

If it happens, just as Dr. Gupta, the Indian American professor of Nuclear Medicine will get a huge sense of accomplishment, after fighting a long and arduous battle to save patients from the danger of substandard and counterfeit medicines in India, the civil society of our country will at the same time feel a unique sense freedom… the freedom from fear… the fear of substandard and counterfeit medicines.

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.