Changes in Law Will Just Make Medicines More Expensive, Not Better

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Changes in Law Will Just Make Medicines More Expensive, Not Better Blog Image

Why in News?

  • India's healthcare system heavily relies on affordable medicines, with the generic pharmaceutical industry playing a pivotal role in providing quality drugs at reasonable prices.
  • Medicines constitute a significant portion of healthcare costs, with nearly 50% of expenses incurred by individuals attributed to purchasing medications.
  • However, the high costs of medicines, primarily driven by patenting, pose a significant barrier to accessing essential treatments.

The Role of Generic Pharmaceutical Companies

  • Generic pharmaceutical companies play a crucial role in addressing the affordability challenge by providing cost-effective alternatives to patented drugs.
  • The Indian generic industry has been recognised globally for its contribution to supplying essential medicines at affordable prices.
  • The evolution of India's patent regime has shaped its pharmaceutical industry and its ability to produce generic medicines.
  • Historically, the Indian Patent Act of the early 1970s restricted patent protection to the process of manufacturing drugs, rather than the products themselves.
  • This approach fostered the growth of the generic industry, establishing India as a leading exporter of generic drugs by the late 1980s.
  • However, recent amendments to the Indian Patent Law threaten to disrupt this ecosystem and undermine access to affordable healthcare.

Impact of TRIPS Agreement on India's Pharmaceutical Industry

  • Transition to Product Patents
    • One of the most significant changes brought about by the TRIPS Agreement was the requirement for member countries to grant patents for both products and processes, including pharmaceuticals.
    • This transition from process to product patents posed challenges for India's generic pharmaceutical industry, which had thrived under a regime that allowed to produce generic versions of patented drugs.
  • Challenges for India's Generic Industry
    • The introduction of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement in 1995 had a profound impact on India's pharmaceutical industry, shaping its trajectory and global standing.
    • The introduction of product patents threatened to disrupt India's generic pharmaceutical industry, which had become known for its ability to produce affordable versions of essential medicines.
    • Product patents granted exclusive rights to the inventor, limiting the scope for generic manufacturers to produce and distribute low-cost alternatives.
  • Pressure to Comply with International Standards
    • The TRIPS Agreement placed pressure on India to align its intellectual property laws with international standards, including the protection of pharmaceutical patents.
    • This necessitated amendments to India's Patent Act to ensure compliance with TRIPS obligations while safeguarding the interests of its generic pharmaceutical industry and public health priorities.
  • Preserving Access to Medicines: Introduction of Section 3(d)
    • Despite the challenges posed by TRIPS, India adopted measures to safeguard access to affordable medicines.
    • Provisions such as Section 3(d) of the Indian Patent Act, introduced in 2005, aimed to prevent the grant of frivolous patents for incremental innovations that lacked significant therapeutic benefits.
    • This provision upheld the principle of affordable access to medicines while complying with TRIPS requirements.
  • Balancing Innovation and Access
    • The TRIPS Agreement presented India with a delicate balancing act between fostering innovation and ensuring access to essential medicines.
    • While patents incentivise innovation and investment in research and development, they also have the potential to restrict access to life-saving treatments, particularly in developing countries with limited healthcare resources.
  • Global Leadership in Generic Manufacturing
    • Despite the challenges posed by TRIPS, India emerged as a global leader in generic drug manufacturing, leveraging its manufacturing capabilities and adherence to TRIPS flexibilities.
    • The country's generic pharmaceutical industry continued to thrive, supplying affordable medicines not only domestically but also to markets around the world.

Section 3(d) and Flexibilities in India’s Patent Laws

  • Section 3(d) of the Indian Patent Act is a critical provision that embodies the flexibilities inherent in India's patent law.
  • Section 3(d) addresses concerns related to "evergreening," a practice employed by pharmaceutical companies to extend the patent life of their products by making minor modifications or incremental innovations.
  • This provision aims to prevent the grant of patents for incremental innovations that lack significant therapeutic efficacy or novelty, thereby safeguarding access to generic versions of essential medicines.
  • Under Section 3(d), for pharmaceuticals and chemical substances, patent protection is granted only if the invention demonstrates enhanced efficacy compared to existing formulations.
  • This requirement ensures that patents are granted for inventions that represent genuine advancements in therapeutic efficacy, rather than minor variations or modifications of existing drugs.

Current Challenges in India's Patent Regime

  • Threats to Pre-Grant Opposition
    • One of the primary challenges arises from amendments to the Indian Patent Rules that have made it more difficult to file opposition to patents at the pre-grant stage.
    • These amendments weaken the mechanism for challenging the grant of patents, potentially facilitating the grant of patents for inventions that lack genuine novelty or therapeutic efficacy.
  • Impact on Competition and Drug Prices
    • The amendments to the pre-grant opposition process could have adverse effects on competition in the pharmaceutical market and contribute to higher drug prices.
    • By limiting the ability of generic manufacturers and civil society organisations to challenge frivolous patents, the amendments stifle competition and impede the availability of affordable generic alternatives to patented drugs.
  • Pressure from Pharma Majors and International Trade Agreements
    • The amendments to India's patent rules reflect pressure from pharmaceutical multinational corporations, particularly from Western and Japanese companies.
    • These companies have lobbied for changes that align with their interests and seek to weaken India's patent regime to facilitate the grant of patents for incremental innovations and extend market exclusivity for their products.
  • Threats to Flexibilities in Patent Law
    • The amendments pose a threat to the flexibilities inherent in India's patent law, particularly provisions such as Section 3(d) that impose stringent patentability criteria based on enhanced efficacy.
    • By limiting opportunities for challenging frivolous patents and weakening provisions that prevent evergreening, the amendments undermine India's ability to safeguard public health priorities and promote access to affordable medicines.
  • Financial Burden on Opponents to Patents
    • Another challenge arises from the imposition of fees on opponents to patents, which could deter patients, civil society organisations, and generic manufacturers from filing pre-grant oppositions.
    • The financial burden associated with challenging patents could limit the ability of stakeholders to protect public health interests and promote access to affordable medicines.
  • Impact on Compulsory Licensing and Drug Availability
    • Furthermore, the amendments affect the issuance of compulsory licences, which are essential for ensuring access to medicines in situations where patents impede availability.
    • By weakening provisions that facilitate compulsory licensing and limit evergreening, the amendments undermine efforts to address healthcare disparities and promote equitable access to essential medicines.

Conclusion

  • Ensuring access to affordable medicines is essential for promoting public health and achieving universal healthcare coverage.
  • By preserving the flexibility in patent law, promoting competition, and safeguarding the interests of patients and public health, policymakers can uphold the principles of affordability, accessibility, and quality in healthcare delivery.

The amendments to the Indian Patent Rules must be carefully evaluated and revised to mitigate their adverse impact on access to essential medicines and public health outcomes. 


Q) What are Indian generic medicines?

Indian generic medicines are unbranded pharmaceutical drugs that contain the same active ingredients as their branded counterparts. They are produced by pharmaceutical companies in India and are often much cheaper than branded drugs due to the absence of patent protection.

Q) Why are Indian generic medicines popular globally?

Indian generic medicines are popular globally because they offer affordable alternatives to expensive branded drugs, making healthcare more accessible to people around the world. Additionally, India's robust pharmaceutical industry adheres to high-quality standards and has earned trust for producing safe and effective generic medications.
Source: The Indian Express