Foreign-made welcome

But India's health care system has little space for indigenously developed biotechnology

Published: Friday 15 October 2004

Foreign-made welcome

-- In 1982, the us-based multinational El-Lily produced and commercialised the first therapeutic recombinant protein, humulin (human insulin). That was the first instance of a pharmaceutical firm venturing into biotechnology. By the late 1980s, all the 20-odd us pharmaceutical majors were into biotechnology. Companies in uk and in many other parts of the developed world followed suit soon.

India was also quick to recognise biotechnology's potential: the country's biotechnology board was created as early as in 1982 -- this body was upgraded into the department of biotechnology (dbt) in 1986. The dbt sponsors 48 post-graduate research courses in institutions throughout the country; it has also established eight autonomous institutions to research biotechnology. But the impact of all this has been nothing more than academic when it comes to pharmaceuticals: Indian medicine companies have very little presence in the biotechnology market. Two public sector undertakings, the Indian Vaccines Corporation (ivcol) and the Bharat Immunologicals and Biologicals Corporation Ltd, were started in the mid-1990s; they have not attained optimum production capacity. In fact, ivcol is a sick unit and may never function.

Why this lackadaisical response? For one, the Indian pharmaceutical industry is conservative and looks for fast returns on their investments. So, it continues to concentrate on trade in biotechnology products developed in the us and other developed countries. Secondly, India's healthcare system affords little scope for companies to innovate. A miniscule percentage of Indians are covered by health insurance. The costs of hospitalisation, diagnosis, treatment and surgical procedures are usually borne by the patient; this implies that there is an overwhelming tendency to economise on medication. In most cases, the physician diagnoses illness without support of laboratory tests. Moreover, a physician prefers to prescribe a combination of antibiotics or broad-spectrum antibiotics in case of an infection rather than recommending a diagnostic procedure, which is often costlier than the treatment. All these not only bedevil accurate diagnosis but also militate against the development of the diagnostic industry.

On its part, the pharmaceutical industry has made little attempts to change the system. Marketing has never held an important place in this industry's scheme of things. This is not surprising: India's pharmaceutical industry has lived for decades by producing indigenous versions of medicines developed elsewhere in the world. Selling such drugs does not require much marketing. Putting a biotechnology related product in the market on the contrary requires aggressive promotion; however, most managers in our pharmaceutical industry do not realise this. Consequently, this industry's initial forays in biotechnology have floundered economically. These include diagnostic kits for typhoid, hepatitis b, syphilis filiarisis and the human immuno-deficiency virus. Such failure is not restricted to diagnostics. Therapeuctic leprosy immunomodulator -- the first of its kind in the world -- did not pick up at all; a hyaluronic acid based ophthalmic surgical devise and an injection for treatment of osteoarthritic pain of the knee also did miserably.
There is a market And let us make no mistake: the Indian market for these products is not small. In fact, the domestic market for the hepatitis b vaccine is estimated to be around Rs 60 crore annually. And the hepatitis vaccine produced in India was much cheaper than its imported counterpart. But weak marketing put paid to its commercial fortunes. This apathy has led quite a few pharma companies shutting down biotech operations completely. At present, about 50 products based on technologies transferred by the dbt and other national and international laboratories are in the pipeline; if current state-of-affairs persist, they might well go the way of other biotechnologically produced drugs. And with liberalisation of the Indian market, increasing number of imported drugs are likely to find their way into the country and whet the apetite of our import-crazy system.

L M Srivastava is head, department of biochemistry, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, New Delhi

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