The issue of patents arouses strong passions. Like with everything else in life, one has to strike a balance — between inventor’s interests and public interest.

S. Murlidharan

“How are you now?” asked Subbu of his elder sister even as he entered her house.

“More than hypertension, it is the cost of medicines that sends my BP shooting up every time”, said Kanaka who was recently back from hospitalisation following a heart attack.

“You know I suffer from diabetics as well and spend more than 50 per cent of my meagre income on medicines for the two of us,” said Shivakumar, a retired company executive and Kanaka’s husband.

“The drugs under patent are more expensive. But then that is the price one has to pay for obtaining the best,” said Kamala emerging from the bathroom, absently towelling her hair.

“Now, now, please don’t take up cudgels for multinational drug companies just because you happen to be working for one and you draw a fat salary from it”, exploded Kanaka at her daughter-in-law.

Cost of invention

“I am not siding with anybody but pointing out the reality. You know investments ranging from $500 million to $1 billion have to be made in inventing a drug. And the time spent in the process is long, often a decade. How do you expect a company to recover its investments?

“The only way to do so is to recover it from the medicines sold during the patent period which is normally for twenty years,” said Kamala apparently in no mood to relent.

“I know the ways of the multinational drug companies, they are parasites”, said Bhaskar from the dining room between mouthfuls.

“You NGO guys don’t know anything,” shot back Kamala at her husband. “But for MNC drug companies, the world would not have found a cure for most of the dreaded diseases. And in return if they ask for a limited monopoly for twenty years, what is wrong,” she went on relentlessly.

“Come on, do you know the seamier side of their operations? They don’t allow the knowledge to fall into public domain even after sitting tight on it for 20 years. They have all found a laughably simple expedient called incremental innovation and evergreen their patents with slight modifications, thus enjoying monopoly in perpetuity.

“It is good that the Madras High Court refused to intervene when Novartis went to it after its ever-greening attempt was turned down by our patent authorities,” fumed Bhaskar unable to keep sarcasm and anger out of his voice.

“The WTO would have the last word on the issue,” said Kamala.

“Baa, you don’t read newspapers. The Swiss Government has refused to raise the matter before the WTO. For your information madam, only governments are allowed to raise disputes before it. And the Swiss Government seems to see the writing on the wall. The game is up for MNCs,” said Bhaskar trying to orchestrate the virulence of his attack on drug MNCs.

“Will you stop fighting with each other and attend to your mother?” chided Subbu.

Unruffled, Kamala went out and got into her car and headed to her workplace even as Bhaskar kick-started his scooter with a jhola flung across his shoulders.

Need for balance

The issue of patents arouses strong passions. Like with everything else in life, one has to strike a balance — between inventor’s interests and public interest. In the absence of patent protection that gives monopoly over the invention for twenty years to the inventor — who can either work the invention himself or allow others to do so for royalty — inventions would have dried up long ago.

At the same time, it is also true that poor patients find the cost of patented drugs prohibitively high so much so that sometimes they forego medicines. Developing countries insert a compulsory licensing clause — which is resented by the drug MNCs — in their patent law so as to allow someone else to produce the same drug at a more reasonable price.

Some enlightened MNCs offer to distribute patented drugs free of cost to the needy. But these palliatives have not worked.

What the heck, some day someone will come up with a compromise formula that addresses the concerns of both more satisfactorily. Meanwhile, patients must be patient and look to their governments for support.

(The author is a Delhi-based chartered accountant.)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated October 29, 2007)
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