Why South Africa’s Health Minister Is So Worried About India Caving in to Big Pharma

Monday, August 10, 2015

The South African health minister Aaron Motsoaledi, in an exclusive interview toScroll, 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.

New drugs

Motsoaledi’s statement comes in the backdrop of increasing prices for anti-cancer and hepatitis drugs in South Africa. Unlike the past decade, when South Africa, along with other sub-Saharan countries, relied heavily on Indian generic pharmaceutical companies for access to anti-retroviral drugs in the battle against HIV/AIDS, the countries have been finding it increasingly difficult to source newer drugs at cheaper prices. The latest case in point is Gilead’s miracle hepatitis C drug Sovaldi – which, when it was launched in 2012, at a price of $84,000 for three months, was considered the most expensive drug in the world.

The fight for access to newer drugs like Sovaldi is reminiscent of the fight for anti-retrovirals in the past decade. With Indian generic companies entering in voluntary licensing agreements with Gilead Sciences, the price of the drug was brought down from $1,000 per pill to $900 for a 12-week course for Indian patients. But the generic versions are not yet available in in South Africa.

Source: Scroll.in (link opens in a new window)

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Health Care
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drugs, HIV/AIDS, pharmaceutical industry, public health