Wednesday, 2 March 2011

FTA: EU & India -- Medical Impact

India is on top in manufacturing and delivering generic pharmaceutical drugs. India is also the world's largest democracy and the second most populous nation. The first HIV/AIDS case was reported in India in 1986. By 2007, over 23 lakh people are reportedly suffering from HIV/AIDS. Treatment of HIV/AIDS cases in India would be unaffordable if generic drugs were not available. Only 10% of these cases are provided "free" treatment by the government. This is possible only because of the availability of generic drugs.

The "Free Trade Agreement" (FTA) between the European Union (EU) and India has been pushed rather discreetly by the Prime Minister's Office.  Intellectual Property Rights on pharmaceutical drug manufacture has been interpreted correctly in India. This has given freedom to the pharmaceutical industry to manufacture medicines with innovative processes, while delivering them at affordable costs to the public. The situation insofar has favoured the citizens.

Patenting a mathematical formula is impossible. In simplistic comparison, patenting a discovery is also not possible. The discovery of Penicillin (the antibiotic) by Alexander Fleming and the X-Ray by Röntgen are attributed to be accidental. Knowing that discoveries cannot be patented, we could safely assume that neither Penicillin nor the X-Ray can be patented. A method or process or machinery to produce them can be patented, but the X-Ray itself or Penicillin (the molecule) itself cannot be patented. Our understanding so far is correct. Industrial production of Penicillin during World War II was critical. Rightly so, techniques for production of Penicillin were patented.

The advent of industrial biotechnology and nanotechnology would provide us with new methods to create substances that we have discovered. Pharmaceutical companies spend huge budgets in research. This research ultimately leads to the creation of new drugs that benefit people. The Pharmaceutical companies hope to recover the money invested in research when they sell drugs. However this slows down their ability to fund themselves. By licensing the manufacturing method they could enable multiple entities to manufacture and distribute a drug in return for a licensing clause-of-multiples. The volume of drugs produced could increase and therefore benefit both the company and the people. So Intellectual Property Rights on the whole seems good.

Now, if a company patented one method to manufacture a pharmaceutical drug and forced everyone to use only that method to manufacture a drug while imposing their Intellectual Property rights, they would (in an evil way) make more money. They would also stifle innovation, thereby preventing people from affording medicines that could save lives. This issue is certainly not new. Jonas Salk, during his famous televised interview with Edward Munrow quipped, "Would you patent the sun?"

Complying with a Free Trade Agreement with the European Union to permit a single manufacturing process to take over will inflate the prices of drugs, make generic drugs unavailable to the truly needy and ultimately hurt society. A "Free Trade Agreement" must facilitate trade and be mutually helpful to all people involved. Concerns on this FTA have been voiced several times last year.

They haven't reached the ears of the policy-makers though, until NGOs made a public demonstration to bring this to light. Let their concerns be heard and answered. While trade needs to be liberal, no policy should ill serve the people, and definitely not scourge those who are suffering from HIV. If we want to help those suffering from HIV let us not burden them, not by blindly signing policy in the name of development. We need to actively research and find ways to cure them. Such research and cure are truly not stifled in the absence of this FTA.