The backlash against India’s pharmaceutical industry

Vested interests, coated with concern for India’s public healthcare

Remember how poor labour standards in the third world were used to prevent manufacturing jobs from moving out of the West? Remember John Kerry’s Benedict Arnold speech and the hoopla over business process outsourcing? The latest entrant into this list is concern for India’s sick poor.

Amir Attaran and Roger Bate contend that India should be punished for its ‘perfidy’, for it dares to build nuclear weapons and dreams of putting a man on the moon even as millions of its poor citizens do not have access to decent healthcare. And what is worse, even though a overwhelming majority of drugs in the World Health Organisation’s are free of patents, India has the temerity to challenge Western pharmaceutical interests at places like the World Trade Organisations.

We are haunted by the sight of a man, crossing the road, dragging behind him a leg made lame and elephantine by lymphatic filariasis — a disease for which Western pharmaceutical firms offer the medicines not just cheaply, but for free, if only the elites and Brahmins officiating in New Delhi cared to distribute them.

The next time Indians arrive at the WTO with a pressing demand, let it chill on the agenda. And the next time India seeks foreign aid for AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, et cetera, donors such as USAID and the Global Fund should absolutely refuse…

This advice may sound harsh, but any government having India’s aspirations must be taught that both globalization and human health are precious — but desperately fragile — things. To mock them as India has done is to destabilize the edifice upon which the welfare of billions of the world’s least privileged people lies. Having knowingly deceived, India now belongs at the back of the queue for international respect and cooperation, for there are other poor countries far more deserving. [Tech Central Station via India Uncut]

There is of course, no doubt that India’s public healthcare system leaves a lot to be desired and that public spending on healthcare should increase. But India does have a burgeoning private healthcare industry that addresses the needs of everyone from the rural and urban poor to world-class medical care comparable with what is available in rich countries. Like in many other spheres of life in India, the private sector has advanced into areas where the public sector has failed — and the timely availability of affordable drugs is crucial to the success of this parallel, free-market in healthcare.

Attaran and Bate contend that 98% of essential drugs are off the patent system. That’s great. What about drugs that millions of poor people need, but which the WHO does not deem essential? And what about antiretroviral drugs that are used to treat HIV-positive patients — while Attaran and Bate point out that HIV/AIDS is a major problem in India, they conveniently avoid mentioning that drugs used in its treatment are part of the 2% that are under patent. By their line of reasoning, while it is wrong for a poor Indian to miss out on free drugs provided by Western pharmaceuticals because India’s Brahmins don’t care to distribute them, it is quite all right for other poor Indians to die of HIV/AIDS because they cannot afford the patented drugs.

The authors’ proposed remedy gives a clue to their real agenda. And that is clearly directed against India’s up and coming pharmaceutical industry, that has begun to challenge Big Pharma, not just in the developing world, but also on its own turf. Affordable drugs manufactured by Indian drug companies are already playing a key role in tackling HIV/AIDS in Africa. And if Western governments can triumph over protectionism, competition provided by Indian companies can offset some of the high costs of healthcare in the developed world.

India has a long way to go reforming its healthcare system; while more money into healthcare would be desirable, spending health rupees wisely is more important. But that nukes vs hospitals argument is bunkum. India must be open to hear criticism about its problems from genuine partners, for example, like the Gates Foundation. Other dispensers of expensive and harsh remedies (comic pun intended), the likes of Attaran and Bate, must be thanked for their trouble.

Related Link: Brad DeLong cites another case where Roger Bate politicises science

2 thoughts on “The backlash against India’s pharmaceutical industry”

  1. Pingback: India Uncut
  2. Further, the proponents of this 97% drugs fail to mention that most of the drugs on this off-patent list have been rendered ineffective against most of the deadly diseases, since now the infections have become resistant to these old drugs. The remaining 3% are the drugs which are effective to these resistant-infections, and the new drugs required to replace old ineffective drugs will be patented, and thus unaffordable.


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