The Cheat Sheet

The GSK gesture

JINOY JOSE P | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on April 06, 2016

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GlaxoSmithKline, the maker of Horlicks?

Well, yes; but the energy drink is just one of the many products the UK-based pharmaceutical company dishes out. Today, we’re discussing its drug department.

What’s making news there?

Turns out, GSK has announced it will not file patents for its drugs in “low income” and “least developed” countries, enhancing access to medicines in a significant slice of the globe.



That’s quite an un-pharma attitude, to be frank.

Looks like it. In fact, the current move is an expansion of certain concessions GSK had introduced in 2009. So, as a result, companies in poor countries can now make their own versions of (the so-called generic drugs) GSK drugs without paying royalties. It says some 85 countries will benefit from this move. That’s some 2 billion of the world’s 7.4 billion people. Also, in lower middle income countries such as Pakistan and Ukraine, GSK will offer “licences” to generic drugmakers for 10 years, in return for a royalty on sales. Critics, though, say this will force the generics industry — which functions well in a liberal patent ecosystem — to get into one-sided contracts.

Interesting! But how big is GSK’s drug kitty?

In the US itself, GSK markets more than 80 drugs. It is the world’s sixth largest pharma company, and last year saw sales of $33 billion for its drugs, vaccines and consumer products. GSK is present in more than 150 markets. So, when the pharma giant takes a decision to loosen its patent regime, experts hope that it will nudge other pharmaceutical companies to do the same.

That’s good news indeed!

GSK says it may put its experimental anti-cancer drugs into a “patent pool” supported by the UN. This means these drugs can be made available at low costs to certain countries.

But does GSK have cancer drugs?

Not as of now. GSK sold all of its approved cancer drugs to Novartis in 2015. But the company is researching on this, and there has been significant progress.

So the talk is about opening up drugs that may hit the market years later, right?

Yes. The group reportedly has more than 10 oncology medicines in various stages of clinical development. Most of them are in early stages but these include some promising new approaches that could revolutionise cancer treatment.

So, GSK thinks, as and when there is a drug discovery, it will be made available to the UN pool. Public health experts feel that this move could force companies that have vital cancer drugs, such as Roche, Novartis, Bayer, Astellas and BMS, to expand access to their patented medicines. This is important because the WHO estimates that cancer kills over 5.3 million people in developing countries each year.

But will this benefit India?

Not much, as things stand now. India is a member of the Group of 20 industrial and developing nations, and is not looked upon as a low income country anymore. So, GSK will continue to seek patents here, according to its CEO Andrew Witty.

Oh, that’s not cool!

Well, GSK critics say most generic makers function in middle- or high-income countries. In these markets, pharma giants such as GSK companies are still obstinate about enforcing their patents.

According to experts, the current approach will force these generics companies to have “case-by-case” deals with drug companies in order to make copycat drugs. That’s not going to help access to medicines, except in certain pockets, perhaps in Africa.

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Published on April 06, 2016
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