On January 12, 2013, one of the leading dailies of India first reported that in a move that is intended to benefit thousands of cancer patients, Indian Government has started the process of issuing Compulsory Licenses (CL) for three commonly used anti-cancer drugs:
- Trastuzumab (or Herceptin, used for breast cancer),
- Ixabepilone (used for chemotherapy)
- Dasatinib (used to treat leukemia).
For a month’s treatment drugs like, Trastuzumab, Ixabepilone and Dasatinib reportedly cost on an average of US$ 3,000 – 4,500 or Rs 1.64 – 2.45 lakh for each patient in India.
CL through a different route:
This time the government can reportedly notify its intent to grant CL under Section 92 of the Indian Patents Act 2005, only if any of the following three conditions are met:
- National emergency
- Cases of extreme urgency
- Public non-commercial use
After such Government notification in the gazette, any company interested in manufacturing any or all of these three products can directly apply for a CL to the Indian Patent Office (IPO).
This route is also expected to save usual litigation costs for the interested pharmaceutical players.
In such case, this will be the first time in India, when instead of pharmaceutical players applying for CL the Government on its own will trigger the CL process.
A situation like this will undoubtedly signal immense unpredictability in the IPR environment of the country.
Incongruent with the New Drug Policy 2012:
Interestingly, section 4(xv) of the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Policy 2012 (NPPP 2012) under ‘Patented Drugs’ states as follows:
“There is a separate Committee constituted by the Government order dated 1st February, 2007 for finalizing the pricing of Patented Drugs, and decisions on pricing of patented drugs would be taken based on the recommendations of the Committee.”
A media report also highlighted that an inter-ministerial group constituted for regulating prices of patented medicines in India has recommended using a per capita income-linked reference pricing mechanism for such products.
Thus, it is rather intriguing for many to fathom, why is the Government contemplating to grant CL on the above three anti-cancer drugs in January 2013, despite the decision of the Union Cabinet on the same in the new Drug Policy as recent as December, 2012.
Medicines come at the third stage of a medical treatment process:
For all patients, including the cancer victims, medicines will come at the earliest in the third stage of any treatment process, the first two or in some cases first three stages being:
- A doctor’s intervention
- Correct diagnosis through diagnostic processes
- Surgical interventions (in some cases)
In India, there is no regulation to address the ‘cost issues’ of the first two or three stages of treatment, though there is a dire need to facilitate the entire process and not just one. Coming straight to cancer medicines considering these as the only ‘magic wands’ to improve access to treatment, may well be considered as ‘jumping the gun’ by the Government, if not an imprudent decision.
Skewed healthcare distribution in India:
Healthcare distribution in India is rather skewed and cancer treatment is no exception mainly because of the following reasons:
- Medical personnel are concentrated in urban areas.
- 74 percent of doctors work in urban settlements, which is just around 1/4th of the population.
- 61 percent of the medical colleges are in the 6 states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Pudicherry.
- Whereas, just 11 percent of these are located in Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, West Bengal and the north-eastern states
- 369,351 government beds are in urban areas and a mere 143,069 beds in the rural areas.
- Rural “doctors to population” ratio is lower by 6 times as compared to urban areas.
(Source: KPMG Report 2011)
Huge healthcare Infrastructural Deficiencies:
In India, not just compared to the developed nations, even as compared BRIC countries, there is a huge infrastructural deficiencies as follows:
|Hospital Bed Density(Per 10000 population)
|Doctor Density(Per 10000 population)
(Source: WHO, World Health Statistics 2012)
- 0.6 doctors per 1000 population as against the global average of 1.23 suggests an evident manpower gap in the very first stage of a treatment process.
- Number of beds available per 1000 people in India is only 1.2, which is less than half of the global average of 2.6.
Coming to Medical Colleges, the scenario is equally dismal, as follows:
Number of Medical Colleges
No of dental Colleges
(Source: Medical Council of India & Dental Council of India)
Thus, India needs to open around 600 medical colleges (100 seats per college) and 1500 nursing colleges (60 seats per college) in order to meet the global average of doctors and nurses.
(Source: KPMG Report 2011)
Shortages in other healthcare professionals:
It has been reported that a deficit of 64 lakh (6.4 million) allied healthcare professionals India with highest gaps in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh, is a stumbling block in providing basic and quality healthcare to Indian population, as follows:
|Anesthetists and technicians
|Ophthalmologists and optometrists
|Medical laboratory technicians
|Audiology and speech language specialists
(Source: Times Of India, December 20, 2012)
Is the Government ‘missing the woods for the trees’?
In a scenario like this, it is rather impractical to envisage that routine grant of compulsory licenses by the Indian Patent Office will be able to resolve the critical issue of improving access to patented medicines on a long term basis.
Not many CL granted between 1995-2012:
Despite having the provisions of CL in the Patents Act of many countries, not many CLs have been granted across the world from 1995 to date for the obvious reasons.
The details are as follows:
|CL granted in:
|Hepatitis B Vaccine
|Sumatriptan Succinate (migraine)
|Erlotinib, Docetaxel (cancer)
|Sorafenib Tosylate (cancer)
Source: DNA, March 9, 2012
An interesting paper:
However, I hasten to add that despite all these, the provision of CL in the Indian Patents Act 2005 has immense relevance, if invoked in the right kind of circumstances.
In the paper titled ‘TRIPS, Pharmaceutical Patents and Access to Essential Medicines: Seattle, Doha and Beyond’, published in ‘Chicago Journal for International Law, Vol. 3(1), Spring 2002’, the author argues, though the reasons for the lack of access to essential medicines are manifold, there are many instances where high prices of drugs deny access to needed treatments for many patients. Prohibitive drug prices, in those cases, were the outcome of monopoly due to strong intellectual property protection.
The author adds, “The attempts of Governments in developing countries to bring down the prices of patented medicines have come under heavy pressure from industrialized countries and the multinational pharmaceutical industry”.
Right pricing of patented drugs is critical:
While there is no single or only right way to arrive at the price of an IPR protected medicine, how much the pharmaceutical manufacturers will charge for such drugs still remains an important, yet complex and difficult issue to resolve, both locally and globally. Even in the developed nations, where an appropriate healthcare infrastructure is already in place, this issue comes up too often mainly during price negotiation for reimbursed drugs.
A paper titled, “Pharmaceutical Price Controls in OECD Countries”, published by the US Department of Commerce after examining the drug price regulatory systems of 11 OECD countries concluded that all of them enforce some form of price controls to limit spending on pharmaceuticals. The report also indicated that the reimbursement prices in these countries are often treated as de facto market price.
In India, the Government is already mulling to put in place a similar mechanism for patented medicines, as captured in the NPPP 2012.
Further, some OECD governments regularly cut prices of even those drugs, which are already in the market. The values of health outcomes and pharmacoeconomics analysis are gaining increasing importance for drug price negotiations/control by the healthcare regulators even in various developed markets of the world to ensure responsible pricing of IPR protected medicines.
An evolving global trend:
To address such pricing issues, global pharmaceutical majors, like GSK and Merck (MSD) have already started following the differential pricing model, based primarily on the size of GDP and income status of the people of the respective countries. This strategy includes India, as well.
Reference pricing model is yet another such example, where the pricing framework of a pharmaceutical product will be established against the price of a reference drug in reference countries.
An innovative approach to address patented products’ pricing:
To effectively address the challenge of pricing of patented medicines in India, Swiss drug major Roche, has reportedly entered into a ‘never-before’ technology transfer and manufacturing contract for biologics with a local Indian company – Emcure Pharma, for its two widely acclaimed Monoclonal Antibodies’ anti-cancer drugs – Herceptin and MabThera.
The report says that in the past, Emcure had signed licensing deals with US-based bio-pharmaceutical drug maker Gilead Life Sciences for Tenafovir and with Johnson and Johnson for Darunavir. Both are anti-HIV drugs.
In this regard, media reports further indicated that Roche would offer to Indian patients significantly cheaper, local branded versions of these two anti-cancer drugs by early this year. The same news item also quoted the Roche spokesperson from Basel, Switzerland commenting as follows:
“The scope is to enable access for a large majority of patients who currently pay out of pocket as well as to partner with the government to enable increased access to our products for people in need”.
Such ‘out of box’ strategies and initiatives by the global innovator companies could help keeping prices of patented products affordable to the Indian patients, improving their access significantly and making the likes of the current Government initiative on CL irrelevant.
It is generally accepted that the provisions for CL in the Indian Patents Act 2005 has utmost relevance in terms of public health interest for all concerned.
However, keeping in view of recent policy announcement in the NPPP 2012, as approved by the Union Cabinet, on price negotiation for patented products, the reported Government move of invoking these provisions for three anti-cancer drugs is rather intriguing.
Moreover, even for the cancer patients, there seems to be a greater urgency to attend to basic healthcare infrastructural and delivery issues, besides providing Universal Health Coverage (UHC) as recommended by the High Level Experts Group (HLEG) constituted for this purpose by the Government.
Far encompassing critical decisions like grant of CL, I reckon, should be taken only after exhausting all other access improvement measures.
Thus, recent news reports on the possibility of further grant of three more CLs could make the pharmaceutical business environment for the innovator companies in India more uncertain.
Demonstrable predictability for an innovation friendly environment is critical for the economic growth of India, which the Government should not lose sight of. Just upping the ante for more CL of anti-cancer drugs will not necessarily help improving access to cancer treatments in 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.