Oxfam says top drug companies focusing on patents, not poor

Oxfam says top drug companies focusing on patents, not poor

New Delhi: A report by a global confederation of non-governmental organizations has criticized the world’s top drug makers for their unwillingness to practice tiered pricing and discover drugs targeting so-called poor man’s diseases such as tuberculosis and insistence on intellectual property rights at the cost of making drugs accessible to the people who need them most.

In its report titled Investing for Life, Oxfam International rates 12 multinational pharma companies on three parameters: Their willingness to spend on R&D related to poor man’s diseases; their ability to tier prices to make the same drug less expensive, and thereby affordable in developing countries; and their position on patents.

The ratings range from “defensive" or the least willingness or involvement of a company to “civil" or the highest involvement or interest.

The report categorizes all 12 drug makers as “defensive" in terms of their attitude towards patents. It adds that the companies deny that their patents create barriers to access to cheaper medicines even as they continue to lobby for stricter patent regines in developing nations.

The other issue of developing drugs for poor man’s diseases prevalent in developing countries. “IP (intellectual property) driven research is only for a market that can sustain its high cost. This leaves out a bulk of the world population that can’t afford to pay and countries which can’t invest in public health. So it keeps off those who need the medicines the most," said Amit Sengupta, general secretary of All India People Science Network, an activist body. “Viagra becomes a blockbuster and there is no new drug for tuberculosis in the last 30 years," he added. Tuberculosis kills nearly two million people across the globe every year.

However, Ranjit Shahani, the managing director of Novartis India Ltd, the Indian arm of one of the companies surveyed by Oxfam, said that the company’s Novartis Institute for Tropical diseases is working on “malaria, tuberculosis, and dengue fever."

The report says that the companies are also not keen to follow tiered pricing except in the case of high-profile diseases such as HIV/AIDS and malaria. Shahani said that Novartis has been selling leprosy and malaria drugs at lower prices in Asia and Africa than it does elsewhere.

The report says that drug makers lay part of the blame on inefficient distribution systems and tax regimes in some countries. Ranga Iyer, the managing director of Wyeth Ltd, the Indian arm of a company surveyed by Oxfam, and head of the multinational drug makers lobby here, said that companies alone could not solve the problem and that all stakeholders, including the government, needed to play a role. He declined further comment until he had read the Oxfam report.

The report also scorns the heavy focus of drug companies on donations, or so-called Patient Access Programmes, as it targets a relatively small group of people and is unpredictable in terms of timing and volume. “We are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t," said Shahani.