The Ghost Keeps Haunting: NCD Dogs Cancer in ‘Compulsory License’ Debate of India

In November 2012, as a part of the ‘Campaign for Affordable Trastuzumab’ for the treatment of breast cancer, a citizens’ collective, reportedly sent an ‘Open Letter’ signed by around 200 cancer survivors, women’s groups, human rights and health rights campaigns and treatment activists from across the world to the Indian Prime Minister, urging him to ensure that the breast-cancer drug Trastuzumab is made affordable for treating cancer patients in the country.

Trastuzumab was named because of the following reasons:

  • Breast-cancer affects around 28-35 per cent of all cancers among women in major cities of India.
  • No other drug against HER+2 cancer can reduce patients’ mortality as Trastuzumab and reduce the spread of malignancy to other parts of the body.
  • Majority of women with HER+2 breast cancer do not have access to a complete course of the drug, which reportedly costs anywhere between Rs 6 to 8 lakhs (US$ 11,000 to US$ 14,500).

Reaping reach harvest: 

According to a media report, three homegrown Indian companies are currently developing biosimilar drugs to this protein molecule to reap a reach harvest arising out of the emerging opportunities.

However, this is expected to be an arduous, expensive and challenging endeavor, as the concerned companies will require pursuing a complicated biotechnological route to create follow-on biologics for Trastuzumab.

The ‘Trigger Factor’: 

It is widely believed that the above ‘Open Letter’ to the Prime Minister had prompted the Ministry of Health to form an ‘Experts Committee’ to evaluate the situation and make recommendations accordingly.

Thereafter, within a short period of time, in January, 2013, in a move that is intended to benefit thousands of cancer patients, Ministry of Health forwarded the report of the above ‘Experts Committee’ to the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP) for its consideration to issue Compulsory Licenses (CL) for three commonly used anti-cancer drugs namely, Trastuzumab (used for breast cancer), Ixabepilone (used for chemotherapy) and Dasatinib (used to treat leukemia). Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), among other experts, also reportedly had participated as a member of this ‘Experts Committee’,

For a month’s treatment drugs like 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.

 A ‘Technology Transfer’ discouraged: 

Such a rapid development in the CL landscape of India is indeed intriguing, especially after a voluntary announcement by Roche in 2012 that it will produce Trastuzumab and Rituximab in India through transfer of technology to an Indian contract manufacturer.

Consequently for a month’s treatment, the price of Trastuzumab will come down from around US$ 2,000 to US$ 1, 366, i.e. by 31 percent and Rituximab from around US$ 1,456 to US$ 682 i.e. by 53 percent. This was reportedly announced by none other than the Minister of State of Chemicals and Fertilizers of India Mr. Srikant Jena.

Despite this voluntary decision of technology transfer and price reduction of two life saving drugs in India by Roche, reported Government consideration for grant of CL for Trastuzumab, without getting engaged in any form of a win-win dialogue with the Company, could ultimately prove to be counter productive and may discourage further technology transfer of expensive patented drugs to India.

Increasing incidence of cancer in India: 

Cancer is just not a dreaded disease, but also making a devastating impact, financial and otherwise, on the lives and families of thousands of sufferers in India.

According to ‘The Lancet’, published on 28 March 2012, in India 556 400 people died of cancer only in 2010.

The paper also comments that only half of the estimated 9.8 million total deaths per year is captured by the CRS in India, fewer than 4 percent are medically certified, while more than 75 percent of deaths occur at home.

The Lancet study clearly highlights that most cancer patients in India die without medical attention and drugs. Cancer is, therefore, increasingly becoming a public sensitive disease area with high socioeconomic impact in the country. High treatment cost of this near terminal disease is beyond reach of majority of population in the country.

In a written reply to a question in the ‘Upper House’ of the Indian Parliament, the Minister of State for Health and Family Welfare on March 4, 2012 said that according to “Three Year Report on Population Based Cancer Registries 2006 – 08″ of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the estimated numbers of cancer patients for 2015 and 2020 are 1.16 million and 1.27 million respectively. There is a gradual rise in the prevalence of cancer in India, though the government has initiated several measures in this area.

High incidence of breast cancer: 

As per a recent report, an estimated 1, 00,000 – 1, 25,000 new patients suffer from breast cancer every year in India and this number is expected to double by 2025.

Government is mulling CL for NCD: 

Currently the DIPP appears to be planning to extend the provision of Compulsory License  (CL) beyond cancer drugs to other Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD) in the country, like diabetes. 

Domestic Pharma Association supports the move: 

A major domestic pharmaceutical industry association, as per media reports, supports this move by clearly articulating, “Over the years, more deaths are taking place on account of Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) than communicable ones. It is, therefore, natural that this provision (CL) will be used for NCDs as well.”

UN declaration on NCD provides flexibilities in TRIPS Agreement: 

Experts believe that this new move on CL for drugs related to NCDs is a consequence of India’s signing the United Nation (UN) declaration on the prevention of NCDs in the country by, among others, using flexibilities in the TRIPS Agreement to increase availability of affordable drugs for such diseases.

The Government has already launched a “National Program for Prevention & Control of Cancer, Diabetes, Cardio Vascular Diseases and Stroke (NPCDCS)” as a pilot project covering 150 million people in 100 inaccessible and most backward districts during the financial year 2011-2012 at a cost of US$ 275 million.

Socio-economic impact of NCDs in India: 

Indian Journal of Community Medicine (IJCM) in an article titled, “Social and Economic Implications of Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) in India” has highlighted, among others as follows:

  • NCDs account for 62 percent of the total disease burden in India with a significant ascending trend both in terms of overall mortality and morbidity.
  • This burden is likely to increase in the years to come.
  • Due to chronic nature of the disease and technological advancements in care, costs of treatment are high leading to access barriers, or ‘catastrophic expenditures’ for those who undergo treatment.
  • There are evidences of greater financial implications for the poorer households suffering from NCDs.
  • Most estimates suggest that the NCDs in India account for a significant economic burden ranging from 5 to 10 percent of GDP.
  • An urgent multi-sectoral Government action is strongly warranted both on grounds of economic arguments and social justice.
  • Action needs focus on addressing the social determinants of NCDs for prevention and strengthening of health systems to meet the challenge.
  • A framework for monitoring, reporting, and accountability is essential to ensure that the returns on investments in NCDs meet the targets and expectations set in the national plans.

Innovator companies contemplating legal recourse: 

Reacting to all these developments, the global pharmaceutical companies have, once again, expressed strong commitment to protect and continue to defend their Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) within the legal framework of India.

They have also reiterated their belief that a robust IPR regime will encourage innovation in the country making available more and more innovative drugs for the patients in India.

An interesting WHO report on a ‘robust IPR regime’: 

In this regard a World Health Organization (WHO) research report titled “Patents, Price Controls and Access to New Drugs: How Policy Affects Global Market Entry” makes some interesting observations on a ‘robust IPR regime’.

The report highlights the following four important points:

1. Increasing the strength of a patent system to include long-term protection on pharmaceutical products appears to spur market entry mostly in the high-income countries.

For the low- and middle-income countries that are currently being encouraged to move to stronger protection through trade policies, the evidence that extending protection enhances access to new pharmaceuticals is mixed.

2. There is some evidence that high level of protection might encourage more frequent entry of innovative products in the short term. However, in the longer term the same domestic capacity could well be an alternative source of entry of such drugs.

3. Intellectual Property (IP) holders frequently assert that the poor quality of enforcement in developing countries undermines the value of their patent rights. However, it is quite evident now that patent laws in these countries are at least broadly meaningful commensurate to their respective domestic requirements.

4. The standard argument on price regulation that it will dissuade market entry for innovative drugs appears to have more relevance among the high-income countries and not so for the poorer countries.

The authors further indicate:

“There we find that while price regulation makes it less likely that new drugs will be available quickly, it does not appear to prevent new products from being launched eventually.”

Conclusion: 

Following all these recent developments and weighing pros and cons, one could well imagine that pressure on the Government from various stakeholders for CL on drugs for Cancer and NCDs will keep mounting, unless an alternative measure like, ‘Price Negotiation for Patented Drugs’ is put in place by the Department of Pharmaceuticals, sooner than later, in 2013.

The recent judgment of the ‘Intellectual Property Appellate Board (IPAB)’ on CL to Natco may further add fuel to this raging debate.

It is now quite clear from the Finance Minister’s speech on the ‘Union Budget Proposal’ for 2013-14 that eagerly awaited ‘Universal Health Coverage’ or ‘Free Distribution of Essential Medicines to all’ schemes will not be implemented, at least for now.

Thus in all probability, the ghost of CL will keep haunting the innovators in India unabated, unless an effective, scalable and sustainable model for improving access to patented drugs for majority of population in the country is put in place. This will call for demonstrative, innovative and constructive Public-Private-Partnership (PPP) initiatives, sooner. In this effort  all concerned should at first be aligned with the cause, in principle, and try to be a constructive partner to get it translated into reality together, rather than just playing the role of vociferous critics in perpetuity .

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.

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