At Obama-Modi Meeting in New York, MSF Urges India to Protect Affordable Medicines for Millions

Ruddy Roye

NEW YORK—As US president Barack Obama and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi meet in New York today, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) warned that US pressure on India to change its intellectual property policies could result in millions of people around the world losing their lifeline of affordable medicines. The international medical humanitarian organization, which relies on affordable generic medicines produced in India to run its medical programs in more than 60 countries, urged Modi to stand strong and protect India’s role as the "pharmacy of the developing world."

MSF displayed large billboards on trucks outside of Modi’s hotel and the Indian consulate in New York with the image of the Taj Mahal made out of pills and the tagline "Incredible India"— a take on the long-standing Indian tourism advertising campaign. 

"We need affordable medicines from India to do our humanitarian work, so we are not about to let the pharmacy of the developing world be shut down," said Manica Balasegaram, executive director of MSF’s Access Campaign. "The health of millions of people around the world will be affected by the decisions Prime Minister Modi makes, so we are urging him not to cave in under overwhelming pressure from the US to change the country’s policies to favor big pharma interests."

India’s law sets the bar higher for what deserves a patent than other countries, filtering out patent applications that cover simple changes to existing pharmaceutical products, in the interest of public health. This has allowed the robust generic competition to continue that has, for example, resulted in the price of a basic HIV treatment combination dropping by 99 percent over the course of a decade, from over US$10,000 to around $100.

The US government, backed strongly by its pharmaceutical lobby, is not only pressuring India to dilute its patentability standards but has been persistently pushing India to implement a drug regulatory system which essentially links the registration of medicines to their patent status (patent linkage), and the Indian Ministry of Health appears to be seriously considering such changes.

"The multinational pharmaceutical industry is pushing hard to stamp out the competition from India,” said Leena Menghaney, South Asia manager of MSF’s Access Campaign. "India must not accept the US line that intellectual property, linked to high drug prices, is the only way to bring in investment; it’s simply not the case."

More than 80 percent of the medicines MSF uses to treat over 200,000 people living with HIV in its projects are Indian generics, and MSF sources essential medicines from India to treat other diseases, including tuberculosis and malaria. India also produces affordable versions of medicines for non-communicable diseases, now considered too expensive even for health care systems in developed countries. In the US itself, insurers, treatment providers, and patients have reached a pain threshold with exploitation and price gouging by the pharmaceutical industry with, for example, cancer medicines priced at more than $100,000 per patient, new hepatitis C medicines at $1,000 per pill, and old medicines jumping from $13.50 to $750 per pill, literally overnight.

"We urge Prime Minister Modi not to accept US demands and standards on intellectual property," said Menghaney. "Millions of lives are at stake."

MSF displayed large billboards on trucks outside of Modi’s hotel and the Indian consulate in New York.
Ruddy Roye