Right to Life & Big Pharma!

Patent Laws Kills Patients

The U.S. visit of Narendra Modi and his high profile meet up with some of the most vicious corporates and their influential lobbies brought up the issues of patents and the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) into the media glimpse. Even the Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi recently at a rally in Haryana, said that cancer medicines have got costlier after Prime Minister Modi met with big pharma officials during his visit to the United States; although this was vehemently denied by the ruling BJP.

The generic industry of India is widely recognised as the ‘pharmacy of the developing world’. The shielding measures put in place by the previous Congress govt, though largely inadequate, are all at stake and this in turn will have a devastating impact on the millions of lives across the world.

It’s not that long ago, international drug maker Bayer shocked the conscience of the millions around the world when it callously quoted over Rs 2.8 lakh (roughly $5,500) per 120 capsule pack of the cancer drug Nexavar, for just a month’s therapy when the annual income of an average Indian is just above Rs 50,000 (less than $1000) at the most. This inevitably pushed India to issue its first ever compulsory licence{{1}} to a Hyderabad based company Natco Pharma thus enabling it to produce the generic version of the cancer drug for around Rs 9000 ($175) a 97% cost reduction. In an immediate response the Bayer AG plead to stop the cheaper generic version of a patented cancer drug and the patent appeals office in India has rejected the appeal which was in turn upheld by the Mumbai High Court’s judgement.

Also the decision of the Indian Supreme Court to sustain the Indian patent office’s rejection of the patent application of Gleevec – a cancer drug in India by Novartis, just reflected the complexities in the developing world while dealing with the patent issues of the big pharmaceutical companies who don’t want to compromise their multi billion revenue flow! It also exposed the necessity of the Indian ruling class, particularly when there is a potential threat for mass outrage, to concede a few crumbs despite huge pressure from big business.

In 2012 the EU-India Free Trade Agreement (FTA) summit in Delhi sparked a lot of popular discontent over the potential provisions of the agreement to give the global multinationals a lot more scope to sue the government for damages in case of state regulations over Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) and the sky rocketing pricing mechanisms of the big pharma companies.

Even the price control order for the drugs, issued by the department of pharmaceuticals in May 2013 could just provide cover to only 17 per cent of India’s pharmaceutical market and having barely any impact in the affordability of medicines for the ordinary people.

But now the reactionary right-wing BJP government lead by Modi – the ruthless executioner of the corporate multi-nationals, is bringing in entirely new threats to overturn whatever existing remnants of those hard-won gains of the ordinary people.

Patents and the Shameless Denial of Life Saving Drugs

After the collapse of the USSR and its satellite states, capitalism and its neo-liberal agenda proclaimed victory not just over planned economy but against state intervention of any kind in hindering the interests of big businesses. This pushed the by and large state-regulated economies like India to open up to the interests of the multinationals.{{2}}

By the late 1990’s the successive neo-liberal aspirant Indian governments had agreed to enter the World Trade Organization (WTO) and to blatantly abide by worldwide intellectual property standards under the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement. Simply put, patenting grants the right to exclude others! Consequently the patent laws which were enacted in India during the period of the infamous licence raj were to be reformed to accommodate the interests of big business.

Patenting encourage monopoly in producing and trading the invented product for the complete patent term of 20 years from the patent registered date. Furthermore the neo-liberal state of affairs generously offers legal provisions for patent holders to extend their intellectual property rights despite the expiration of the patent duration.

‘Evergreening’ is in fact a range of highly obscure practices particularly used by drug manufacturers, particularly to control competition from possible cheaper generic equivalents. However virtually all nations including the United States got anti-Evergreening legislation because of the increasing strain on the state obligations to the bare minimal public health provisioning due to their colossal spending on the pharmaceutical drugs.

There are tonnes of detailed facts & figures which are available to expose all the shady practices that big pharmas indulge into. All of them clearly expose the fetters of this capitalist system which is no more modern or progressive.

There are many health activists groups and humanitarian organisations like Médecins Sans Frontières or Doctors Without Borders (MSF), who openly spoke against the big pharmaceutical companies and their abuse of patent rights. The persistent pressure of those activists’ organisations and the clear possibilities of escalating mass protests were the reasons leading to the 2001 Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health precisely allowing the World Trade Organization (WTO) member states in eschewing patent rights to improve the access to essential medicines. Even these futile measures conceded by the WTO and TRIPS are having a far reaching impact with the 99% reduction in the cost of Anti-Retro Viral therapy for HIV positive and AIDS related illnesses and a significant 30% increase in the Anti-Retro Viral coverage in Sub-Saharan Africa etc.

Science and Knowledge Not For Sale!

‘Could you patent the sun?’ was the response by Jonas Salk; this was in a television interview to the question of ownership of the patent for the first effective polio vaccine. Salk, an eminent medical researcher, celebrated for his contributions in the development of polio vaccine could have hardly imagined then that the drug corporate mafia today would even patent an eclipse!{{3}}

Nonetheless, social relationship and the relations to production changes, as the productive forces and the mode of production develop. As pointed out by Marx and Engels in ‘The Communist Manifesto’ capitalism effectively converted ‘the man of science’ into its paid wage labourer. And the developments in science and technology are incessantly appropriated by the massive corporate companies recruiting the leading scientists to their well funded state-of-the-art research environment with market driven projects aiming not to cure diseases, but to develop new drugs for treating only symptoms for chronic conditions mostly targeting the well-off population, which are rewarding in terms of profits.

Reports from Reuters clearly show, how several pharmaceutical companies just came up with the mission to find treatment for the deadly disease like Ebola as soon as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the first case of the virus diagnosed in the country. It’s not surprising how the drug majors in spite of their great resources virtually ignored the Ebola epidemic in the poverty stricken parts of the world and it’s definitely not surprising how the market share prices of those pharma companies surged when they set to find the cure for Ebola as soon a first case appeared in an affluent market like U.S.!

The modern science and development owe everything to the collective progress made by several of the previous societies and forces of enlightenment in spite of the numerous attempts of its repression by the reactionary forces. Corporate capitalism tapping the valuable advancement & innovation from humanity could only be equated to the tyrannical feudalism liquidating the land and living means from the masses. It is important that ordinary people particularly the youth and the organised working class should not be a mere audience to this corporate plunder.

Lives, people and not profits!

In 1970 the Sri Lankan United Front government, of which the Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) was part, established the State Pharmaceuticals Corporation (SPC) – which distributed drugs at affordable rates, by generic name instead of by trade/ brand name as part of a series of pro people reforms.

The healthcare system and the state pharmaceutical infrastructure in Cuba is a result of the planned economy introduced after the revolution in 1959. In spite of the constraints imposed by the lack of genuine workers’ democracy, it is seen as a beacon throughout the Caribbean and South America.{{4}}

The ordinary people obtained far-reaching gains in their living standards and conditions only through struggle. History has reportedly shown with the struggle for the political advancement of the working class results in its gains; the health care a vital part of the welfare state in the Western Europe, Canada & New Zealand are all the consequences of the great struggle of the working class against the establishment politics. Yet those historic gains are all in threat because of the lack of revolutionary perspective to fundamentally change this outdated system altogether.

Thus the strategy of the bankrupt left parties in India, for instance, is to defend existing patent laws with countless independent statutory bodies to ensure the affordable drug pricing is only going to be futile and temporary measures. This is nothing more than a method to safeguard the old system!

At the same time it’s just not the big pharmas like Bayer AG or Novartis who are the culprits, the world class privately run medical hospital in India don’t allow anyone who can’t afford their bills to obtain their services regardless of their medical conditions and the private medical institutions won’t provide education without a handsome lot of money in the name of donations!

Even the Indian Pharmaceutical companies if they happened to enter drug innovation and discovery will more likely take the obscene route of those pharmaceutical multinationals in terms of the patenting rights and will lobby the government to increase its incentives at the expense of affordability.

Therefore to ensure the liberation of the ordinary people from the profit drive of the big business companies, it is very important to bring those big corporations into public ownership along with every other essential sectors including banks, industries, logistics etc., under the democratic workers’ control for a socialist planned economy. It is also equally important for these revolutionary changes to be implemented by the workers around the world through the struggle for socialism. This will in-turn unleash the great many possibilities of what the future holds under a socialist system, with technology that is oriented towards people’s need and freeing science and researchers from the stronghold of the corporate empire to the pursuit of real research interests that can have significant impact on the lives of people across the planet! A world where medicine, healthcare and science are free for the needs of people is possible!

Sajith Attepuram


[[1]]A compulsory license to an individual or company will enable to use another’s intellectual property like a patented drug without seeking the patented rights holder’s consent (in this case Bayer AG) and pays the rights holder a set fee for the license to produce the generic versions of the drug in affordable price (in this context).[[1]]

[[2]] Heavy bureaucratic control, corruption and the inability of the state to expropriate and distribute the resources from the landowners and affluent Indian businesses had brought the Indian economy to the verge of bankruptcy.[[2]]

[[3]] Before the discovery of Insulin, Diabetes a metabolic disease often characterised by high blood sugar levels was a deadly and untreatable disease, caused by the discrepancies in the production or uptake of Insulin hormone by the body. The discovery of Insulin by Frederick Banting and his team is widely accepted as an important milestone in the history of disease treatment.

Not considering the controversies about the discovery of Insulin and the awarding of Nobel Prize for it, Banting along with his research team sold to the University of Toronto, the patent rights for insulin for just about a dollar, apparently to use the income from insulin to fund new research studies. Edward Jenner, who developed the first successful vaccine for the dreadful small pox disease, pharmacist Alexander Fleming whose discovery is penicillin – an antibiotic that has saved and is still saving the lives of millions and there are many striking examples of scientists and researchers who often pursued science out of wider interests.[[3]]

[[4]] In fact the world’s first comprehensive universal health care system developed by the planned economy of the Soviet Union followed by its bloc countries where every constituent of the pharmaceutical drug provisioning were organized as public services. Nevertheless, a range of organisations with an assortment of overbearing designations and the institutional separation among them with each body operating according to its own terms, disregarding the whole process and thus leading to an unaccountable regime of the corrupt bureaucratic elite because of the complete lack of workers’ democracy in the Stalinist bloc countries.[[4]]