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Why South Africa’s health minister is so worried about India caving in to big pharma

A big supplier of cheap lifesaving drugs to developing nations, India admirably balances public health needs with private profits and innovation. But it is under pressure to change this model.
Why South Africa's health minister is so worried about India caving in to big pharma

The South African health minister Aaron Motsoaledi, in an exclusive interview to Scroll, said that he was extremely “scared and worried” about the possibility of pro-industry changes in India’s intellectual property rights regime.

For decades, India has been at the forefront of a legal battle to make lifesaving drugs available at affordable prices for much of the developing world. As Motsoaledi put it, “We regard India as the pharmacy of the developing world, and we are modelling the development of our pharmaceutical industry on India’s. We want to learn from them.”

India’s dispute with Western pharmaceutical companies can be traced back to the 1970s, when the country introduced its process patent regime. Under the regime, Indian companies could reverse engineer existing drugs and sell them at home under generic names. It gave rise to a robust domestic pharmaceutical industry, with an annual turnover of Rs 128,044 crores in 2013-’14, which ensured that most medicines continued to be available at affordable prices.

India was crucial to South Africa’s battle against AIDS. In 2001, when AIDS had become the leading cause of death in sub-Saharan Africa, Yusuf Hamied, chairman of India’s largest generic drug maker, Cipla Pharmaceuticals, shocked the Western pharmaceutical community by announcing a generic version of anti-retrovirals for a $1 a day. Today, the non-profit group Médecins Sans Frontières estimates that nearly 80% of all anti-retrovirals used in Africa come from India.

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