My Take

One man's pain is still another's gain

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 April, 2013, 3:17am

The Indian Supreme Court ruling that denied Swiss drug giant Novartis a patent for its cancer drug is a continuation of the battle between multinational drug companies and developing countries over accessibility to cheaper drugs.

The ruling is seen by Novartis as an infringement of its right to patent new drugs, which it claims involves huge research resources. The company says allowing cheaper copies would dampen its efforts to spend more on future research. It is threatening not to roll out new drugs in India.

Critics say groups like Novartis add variations to existing drugs to prolong patents and keep earning high profits. Glivec, the drug in question, costs up to US$70,000 a year, while Indian generic versions cost about US$2,500.

Patients' rights groups welcomed the court ruling, as millions of poor people around the world cannot afford pricey drugs and depend on generic versions to treat diseases like HIV-Aids.

Other generic-drug-making countries will now be studying this case closely to see if they can follow India's model. But the multinationals will be unleashing their might to stop that, and so the battle will continue.

Drug companies are often accused by activists of making a profit at the expense of the poor and the needy. But this trait is not just to be associated with modern multinationals. Even some of the greatest minds in history have been found guilty of greed.

A study by Aberystwyth University in Wales found that William Shakespeare was a ruthless businessman who illegally hoarded grain during a famine and avoided taxes. He was repeatedly prosecuted, fined and threatened with jail, the study says. He used the profits made from such deals to buy real estate and became a huge land owner. Truly the bard was far ahead of his time in many ways.

So now - at a time when every situation is seen as an opportunity to make money by some - one man's pain often ends up as another man's gain.

That is reflected clearly in the rise in price of drug company shares on Chinese stock markets as soon as cases of a new bird flu were reported earlier this week. The dictum now, it seems, is that if a medical epidemic looms, head to the stockbroker before heading to the pharmacist.