The recent release of the documentary Fire in the Blood has revived the debate on whether patents block access to life-saving medicines. Dr Yusuf K Hamied, chairperson of Cipla and the ‘star’ of the film, made international headlines in 2001 when he offered to provide HIV medicines at $350 per patient per year when the MNCs were selling the same for $15,000. But now under the new patent law, generic versions of newer patented drugs cannot be manufactured here. Hamied tells Rema Nagarajan why there can’t be a repeat of the 2001 triumph

Does India’s current patent law prevent Cipla from doing what it did in 2001, supplying new drugs to Africa at a fraction of the price charged by multinational pharmaceutical companies?
If there was a new medicine for the treatment of HIV/AIDS which is very good and it is covered under Indian patent law, I cannot make it. So it blocks us. Under the 1970 patent law there was no product patent and we could manufacture any product legally. That changed in 2005 when India joined the World Trade Organisation. We got a new patent bill and backdated it to 1995. We have to honour that. This is a major deterrent for manufacturing new drugs not only for HIV/AIDS but all major diseases. By doing this, India is committing selective genocide in healthcare.
Are we selling the lives of our people for trade interests?
In Fire In The Blood on how millions of Africans died of HIV because patents blocked affordable medicines, the last slide states, “Help prevent a sequel”, and to me, the sequel has already started. We might not be “selling” people’s lives, but we are definitely playing with people’s lives by not giving access to life-saving medicines at an affordable price.
Despite the victory in Africa, the patent system thrives and is getting stronger. Won’t millions again die from the lack of affordable drugs?
That’s because the governments are giving in. India cannot afford a monopoly in drugs. If there is a monopoly, people won’t be able to afford drugs, like the cancer drugs sold today. For example, the top-selling AIDS drug in the world, Atripla, costs $20,000 per patient per year in the US. Cipla’s US FDAapproved equivalent product, is being sold for less than $100 per patient per year in Africa where it is not under patent. If they block India, they are essentially blocking the Third World’s supply of newer cheaper anti-AIDS drugs and other newer medicines.
Can we have research for new drugs without the patent system?
Don’t mix science and the development of science with patents. Science is ongoing. Everybody is going to keep inventing. What has accelerated is not so much patenting or innovation but evergreening, the effort to extend patents.
What’s an ideal system to replace the current patent system?
Nobody wants to get rid of the patent system. But India should study what legal flexibilities are available to us in the section on compulsory licensing in the current patent law and see if we can formulate a pragmatic obligatory licensing system similar to Canada in 1969. This allowed Canadians to copy any drug and pay the patent holder 4% royalty. Many countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Brazil have already brought in compulsory licensing. Look at the world’s top-selling drugs; 70% of them are made and marketed by companies that haven’t invented them. They are all in-licensed products. They are paying royalty to the guy who did the invention. So in-licensing is on all the time, but now, it is a specific in-licensing on exclusive basis to one company. I want non-exclusive in-licensing. I want the obligatory licensing system. I don’t mind paying royalty.
What happens after the Dr Hamieds and Poonawallas? Will Indian companies like Cipla get acquired by multinationals?
The backbone of the Indian pharma industry is the indigenous company. Therefore, the government should provide us with suitable infrastructure and support to grow. Stable Indian companies are not selling out, only the unstable ones are. If you give them such a raw deal, how long will they last? Anyway, Cipla is not in the market to be sold. Not in my lifetime at least.
Do you think any Indian government can do what Indira Gandhi did in the late 1960s — stand up to the developed world to make drugs accessible?
I think a time will come very soon when we will no option but to do it. The Chinese are standing up. In 1970, when India changed the patent act, Indira Gandhi made changes in only three areas — food, drugs and agro/pesticides. What we need is obligatory licensing. For certain diseases like cancer HIV/AIDS, TB, malaria, there should be no patenting or there should be compulsory licensing or obligatory licensing so that I don’t have to go with a begging bowl to companies. So far, we have had compulsory licensing only in individual cases, not as a policy.


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