Posted by: Bruce Einhorn on February 29, 2008
Just when Thailand shows signs of backing down in its confrontation with global drugmakers, Big Pharma may be facing an even bigger Asian challenge, this time in India. The Thais infuriated pharmaceutical companies last year by invoking a WTO provision to break the patents on some HIV/AIDS drugs and threatening to break several more cancer drugs. However, a few days ago the new Thai health minister, part of the civilian government that took office in January, abruptly demoted the Thai official behind this challenge to Big Pharma. (More on that in this story from Reuters.)
But the multinational pharma companies now have to deal with a new Indian problem. An Indian drugmaker, Natco Pharmaceuticals, yesterday asked the government to break the patents on several cancer drugs. (More in this AFP story.)
India, of course, has long presented problems to the big drug companies. Last August, for instance, I wrote here about the setback that Novartis faced when a court ruled against its attempt to preserve a patent on a leukemia drug.
For the multinationals, getting India to fall into line, as the Thais seem to have done, probably won’t be easy. In a poor country with over 1 billion people and a democratically elected government, the government has lots of pressure to hold the line against the drug companies. AFP quotes an activist explaining the need to break the patents: “ ‘If compulsory licensing is not resorted to, 98 percent of India’s population will not be able to afford any of the patented drugs,’ said Y.K. Sapru, the president of the non-profit Cancer Patients Aid Association.” And in one of those doing-well-by-doing-good situations, there are plenty of Indian drugmakers that figure they can build a good business by making low-cost versions of expensive drugs and making them available in developing countries.
India does have lots of drug companies with big ambitions of becoming more than just makers of generics, though. Just last week, for instance, Ranbaxy announced its plan to spin off its drug-discovery division. The new subsidiary, to be called Ranbaxy Life Science Research, will “establishes a robust structure to carry out pathbreaking research at the cutting edge of modern medicine,” the Economic Times quoted Ranbaxy CEO Malvinder Mohan Singh explaining. “It will also enable RLSRL to create intellectual property at a faster pace while positioning it for the future.”
Other Indian drugmakers - Sun Pharma, for instance - are taking similar moves. With companies like Ranbaxy hoping to become more important global players in the drug-discovery business, preserving the strength of the patent system is not just an us-versus-them, Indians-versus-Westerners argument.