Tripping Up On Trips

Updated: Jan 25 2003, 05:30am hrs
That India has comparative advantage in the pharmaceutical sector is undeniable. Pharmacia India has indicated that after the impending merger of Pharmacia and Pfizer, Indian operations will move into high gear, catering to the domestic market as well as using India for sourcing. Understandably, this is contingent on India introducing data exclusivity legislation, required under the Trade-related Intellectual Property Rights (Trips) agreement, and on the shape of drug policy after 2005, the deadline for complete product patent legislation. However, impasse over the Trips agreement continues. As a negotiating stance, India and Brazil may have argued for reopening the Uruguay Round (1986-94) agreement. But, apart from geographical indications, the core issue is patents and compulsory licensing, the controversy over parallel imports and price controls having been cleared up by the Doha (2001) Ministerial. Within compulsory licensing, governments have sufficient flexibility. However, countries that dont possess sufficient domestic manufacturing capacity have a problem using these provisions. This was the problem paragraph 6 of the Doha Declaration sought to address and the Trips Council was supposed to find a solution by December 2002.

Clearly, the only option is for such countries to import cheap drugs from other developing countries (DCs) with manufacturing capacities such as India, Brazil, China, South Africa and Cuba. It was this issue that unified DCs in Doha, since interests of possible exporters were identical to those of possible importers. The impasse continues because there is no consensus yet on which countries should be allowed this import option and for what drugs or diseases. Developed countries like the United States (US) wish to restrict the import option to 49 least developed countries and diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, whereas DCs prefer more flexibility. Meanwhile, the Indian pharmaceutical industry has offered, with the government as a co-funder, to help African countries (the obvious geographical area affected) by providing financial assistance to students to come to India and for training chemists in Indian labs. Transfer of technology and setting up manufacturing plants in Africa are also possibilities. An African delegation is also in India and this is a welcome development for the cause of global public health. But clearly, the global pharma lobby has not learnt from the public relations disasters it committed in South Africa and Brazil in the context of AIDS. The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association (IFPMA) has accused India and Brazil of producing poor quality and counterfeit drugs and seeking to exploit a commercial opportunity. Everyone exploits commercial opportunities and members of IFPMA are not in the business for altruistic reasons. As for poor quality, Indian pharma exports to the US have to comply with Food and Drug Administration norms. Within India, thanks to 20,000 producers, it is understandable that some drugs are of poor quality and counterfeit. But all pharma producers in India cannot be tarred with the same brush. That is like generalising that developed countries have no intellectual property because they seek to pirate atta chakkis, haldi, Vaastu and basmati.