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Of Compassion of Drug Companies on the Suffering

March 28, 2013

I had forwarded to my friends an appeal to join in a petition to the CEO of Novartis to drop the proceedings against the State of India regarding India’s patent regime, echoing as I did, the sentiment that corporates make way too much money out of the sufferings of people.

I have received response from some people, genuinely concerned,  that ask me questions on this:

– Is it not right that drug discovery is an expensive process and are not the companies entitled to a profit? If you deny them this, would not research dry up and would that not be against the interest of the sick? Can’t concerned governments buy bulk doses from the drug companies and subsidise their sale to the needy indigent (at least till a good system of publicly funding research on new drugs is in place)?

– Do we not become free-riders of the R&D that goes into these medicines (if we permit process patents, etc) ? Perhaps our (read Indian) generic drug manufacturers will be forced to do better than just reverse engineer molecules if patent rights are upheld. Yes, life-debilitating conditions in third-world countries are a good reason to push for differential pricing – but unfortunately pharmaceutical smuggling is now big business (and smugglers will be the main beneficiaries).

– Are there not provisions for compulsory licensing? Is this campaign, now being sponsored, just and reasonable? Should the campaign be supported simply because victims of disease are poor? Does the vicitm’s interest not lie  in allowing Novartis a fair return on its investment ? Have we seen what profit the other firms, which are now manufacturing the drug, are making?

Okay. I hold no brief for Indian, or Chinese, or any other manufacturers who reverse engineer the drugs that have been discovered strenuously, spending much money and then more on clinical testing, etc. I know several of them are perhaps more greedy and want to make higher profits on lower investment.

It still does not make me agree that the companies that have developed the drugs in the first place are entitled to whatever profits they decide. And I am not convinced that permitting them this is in the interest of the suffering,  and these companies will thus and only thus pursue their research activities. A focussed commercial company needs to maximise returns to all its stakeholders and I have not known that the word “stakeholders” ever included, in this case, the sick.

There is an entirely different area where the whole philosophy of social, collective ownership and management of activities for the public good is concerned. Let me not get into all of that. My only peeve is that copyrights and patents, originally intended to protect the labour of the creative, to ensure that it is not stolen by the smart operators, are being taken too far without a real audit of the costs and rewards. It is too much prevalent in the pharmaceutical industry and computer software. Richard Stallman has extensively written on the software industry. And it has been demonstrated by several companies in the open (source) software that more than a decent living can be made, a fair return ensured in their business model. I do not know whether the Open Source Drug Discovery initiative will ever bloom – I am not very optimistic, given the record of CSIR-India.

But there was a time when music, the arts, science grew supported by the State, not a communist or socialist one but in the court of royalty.

And I stand by my effervescent appreciation of Marie Curie who did not patent her radium process, Jonas Salk who refused to patent his polio vaccine. Can you patent the sun, asked Salk.

Tailpiece: We have had the spectacle of foot-in-the-mouth Katju rooting for a pardon for Sanjay Dutt. He (Dutt) only thought (like the NRA in the US) that guns are made for protection, not killing.

Now we have Tamil politicians falling over each other trying to make the Sri Lankan Tamils a free nation. Like boy scouts who (for their daily good deed) want to resuscitate someone who has not drowned.  And one of them, (a lawyer!), wants the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to India prosecuted for sedition! Subramanian Swamy called him (the lawyer) an idiot. What would you?


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  1. Anantha permalink

    Marie Curie and Sal k are of course entitled not to hold their discoveries to themselves, and I do not think they did not have their reward. But Novartis has its own motivation, not to mention shareholders, and they have sought capital and made specific investment. This a relevant differentiator. As for runaway profits and profiteering, the law provides for compulsory licenses and regulation of pricing. These are the measures, based on the competence of the State, within WTO, to pursue, not to make appeals to Novartis not to protest an action that, presumably ,
    is not according to the law.

  2. I will not go into inanities like saying the law is an ass; it is what we make it. Your line, as also mine, is that fairness must be ensured all round. Being affluent certainly does not make you guilty. Without going into vexed arguments about what creates value, I am concerned about the value attributed to pharmaceuticals research, costs, benefits and implications of marketing.

    It is not the poor of the third world alone that are affected. I am told, again by Wikipedia, that Novartis has pursued the legal option to try and prevent British NHS Trusts switching from using Lucentis at £700 an injection to using rival Avastin at £60 an injection citing concerns for patient safety due to the unlicensed nature of Avastin.

    But indirect taxes are the favourite of finance ministers, not direct taxes. I am not my brother’s keeper in any sense, the poor are so because they are listless, feckless…

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