Patent to plunder

By Amit Sengupta

, by Frontline

India’s efforts to produce and supply life-saving drugs at affordable prices face challenges from multinational companies trying to “evergreen” their patents.

THE average life expectancy across the globe has increased from around 30 years a century ago to over 65 years today. This has been made possible in large part by modern medicine. Never before in history have humans had access to such an array of medicines and devices to treat and ameliorate illness. These advances have also created a new terrain of conflict. While the knowledge required to promote health has expanded enormously, paradoxically, so have the attempts to restrict access to such knowledge.

The current regime of intellectual property rights (IPR) seeks to exercise monopoly control over the production and reproduction of knowledge. Consequently, products to treat a range of diseases are denied to those who need them the most merely because they cannot pay for them. It is denied to them not because these medicines cannot be produced at a reasonable cost but because a few corporations treat the knowledge as their property and sell these medicines at exorbitant prices. They also use the monopoly created by patents to prevent other companies from producing and selling these drugs at much lower prices.

Nothing illustrates this better than the impact of the human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immune deficiency syndrome epidemic in Africa. In 2001, the annual cost of treating one HIV/AIDS patient was $10,000. Some African countries would have had to spend more than half their gross domestic product to procure these medicines for those who needed them. The tragedy is that these medicines need not have been so expensive. In 2003, the Indian company Cipla finally started selling the same medicines at $250 per annum – at 1/40th the earlier cost. Even this price was high, and the same drugs can be bought today at less than $100 for a year’s supply.

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