We need to encourage the new product patent regime

Ushering in the Product Patent Regime in India heralds the dawn of a new era. The era that vindicates not only the need to encourage, protect and reward innovation for the rapid progress of our nation but also to compete effectively, in the knowledge economy with the best in the world to establish India as a leading country with a significant share of the global economy.However, it is quite unfortunate that the 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 of medicines is concerned. After almost 4 decades of continuation with the above policy, around 65% of Indian population still do not have access to cheaper off-patent medicines against comparative figures of 47% in Africa and 15% in China (Source: International Policy Network, November 2004).

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% 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 of medicine to the ailing population of India. Only a sharp focus on rejuvenation of our fragile healthcare 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.

Indian Patent 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 health care spending including hospitalization, it is important to ensure that individuals with large healthcare expenses have affordable access to their 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 for all, in a holistic way.

The attack on patents is not really a defense of patients or the poor. Such attacks help diverting attention from the core healthcare issues, as mentioned above, which are healthcare system, healthcare financing and healthcare infrastructure. 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 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 Patent Act of the country for inclusive growth.

By Tapan Ray

Disclaimer:Views/opinion expressed in this article are entirely my personal, written on my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or any organization for this opinion.

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