Can the public sector take responsibility to develop drugs for neglected diseases?
rochevs. Ranbaxy. North vs. South. David vs. Goliath. This is how the media has presented the patent row between Roche and Indian generics manufacturers over the production of the drug Tamiflu, one of only two known treatments for avian flu, a disease that kills over half of the people it infects. It feared the disease will reach pandemic proportions. It has recently been revealed that Roche didn't apply for a patent on Tamiflu. Now drug manufacturers in the country can start work on attempting to recreate the drug. Countries that don't have the capacity to produce the drug can start thinking about importing the drug from Indian generics manufacturers once they start producing. Seemingly a happy ending. The good guys won. But are Roche and Ranbaxy that different?
There are just two reasons why we may have cheap versions of Tamiflu. The disease had so much media hype around it, that politicians were just about willing to challenge Roche on it's patent and bathe in the media praise that occasionally surfaces when defending public health. Second, with cases of avian flu turning up in birds in the eu, this is not just a poor man's problem. But for several drugs under patent, this is not the case. Can we expect Indian drug manufacturers to come to our aid? Any new drugs that come on the market for malaria, tuberculosis, and hiv / aids for example will not be able to slip through the last remaining patent loophole that Tamiflu wiggled through. These new drugs will be expensive for developing countries to buy. With the prospect of legal sanction, Indian manufacturers will not produce them. The poor will have to use the old medicines. Then there are the completely neglected diseases that affect only poor countries and have no media "wow" factor such as sleeping sickness and chagas disease. There is no incentive to produce drugs for these at all in the private sector. In the new patent regime starting January 2005, there is no North vs. South. Since we have the same patent laws, the same economics that prevents Roche from developing drugs for these diseases will prevent Ranbaxy from doing the same. In the new patent regime, the public sector will have to take on more responsibility for developing drugs for neglected diseases. Is it up to the task?
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