Ushering in the Product Patent Regime in India, effective January 1, 2005, heralds the dawn of a new era… an era that is expected to add speed to the wheels of progress of the nation. The new paradigm vindicates the importance of encouraging, protecting and rewarding innovation to meet the unmet needs of the population. At the same time this change instills new hope in our mind that India will now compete with the bests in the world, more innovatively and effectively, to curve out a significant share of the global economy.
Criticism continues, unfortunately though…
However, it is quite unfortunate that the pharmaceutical product patents that protect today’s innovations and drive research and development to create tomorrow’s life-saving treatments, are under criticism from some quarters. India chose to follow an alternative to Product Patent regime for many years. In 1970, the Government of India amended its IP laws with a clear objective in mind to reduce the prices of medicines to improve their access to the ailing population of the country.
As a result, some drugs were made cheaper. However, the moot question that we need to address now: was it a panacea? While looking back, it does not really appear so. On the contrary, the situation remained as gloomy thereafter, so far as the access to medicines is concerned. After almost four decades of continuation with the above policy, around 65% of Indian population still does not have access to cheaper off-patent medicines against comparative figures of 47% in Africa and 15% in China.
Children still go without routine vaccinations, though the Government has made the primary vaccination programs free in our country, for all. Even in a situation like this, where affordability is no issue, only about 44% of infants (12 – 23 months) are fully vaccinated against six major childhood diseases – tuberculosis, diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio and measles. Moreover, as we know, despite distribution of cheaper generic HIV AIDS drugs by the Government and others mostly free for years, only 5% cent of India’s AIDS patients were receiving any drugs by the end of 2006.
The above two important examples prove the point very clearly that addressing the issue of price alone will not help our country to solve the issue of poor access to medicines to the ailing population of India. Only a sharp focus on rejuvenation of our fragile healthcare delivery system, healthcare financing and rapid development of healthcare infrastructure of the country by the Government or through Public Private Partnership (PPP), will help address this pressing issue.
Paving way for innovation…issues of affordability and access need to be addressed differently :
Indian Patents Act 2005 has paved the way for innovation and hi-tech research and development within the country. Contrary to adverse forecasts from some quarters, prices of medicines have not gone up.
However, while medicines play a relatively small role in rising overall healthcare spending including hospitalization, it is important to ensure that individuals with large healthcare expenses have affordable access to required medicines. Thus a good affordable insurance coverage (both Government and Private) available to all Indians belonging to various socio-economic strata, together with the above measures, will help address the key issues of both access and affordability of medicines to all, in a holistic way.
IPR regime…is it more robust in China?
India is continuously compared with China in various parameters both within and outside the country. It is known to all that China is now attracting more Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs), be it Pharmaceutical R&D or Clinical developments of the new drugs. The moot question is why?
India restricts incremental innovation with section 3(d) of the Patents Act, but China has no such restrictive provisions. India does not protect regulatory data of the innovators, but China does. India does not have any patent linkage system with the marketing approval of the generic versions of the patented molecules, but China has put in place such system in their country.
With all these has India been able to improve affordability and access to medicines better than China or as even much as China? No, unfortunately, it has not. In China about 85% of the population has access to medicines, in India the equivalent figure will read as just 35%. Why then are such restrictions in the Patents Act of India? Have the drug prices gone up disproportionately in India post 2005? No… Not really. Unfortunately, the share of voice of the generic industry on these issues being much shriller, the voice of the innovator companies, be it Indian or global, is getting lost in the din, on all these important issues.
The attack on patents is not a defense of patients or the poor. Such attacks help diverting attention from the core healthcare issues, as mentioned above. Health of our nation will depend on how well these key issues are being addressed by the policy and decision makers. Our country cannot afford to ignore the fact that intellectual property is one of the keys to prosperity of a great nation like India and it should be encouraged, protected and rewarded under a robust patents act of the country for inclusive growth.
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.