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‘Pharma must rethink, repurpose’

PT Jyothi Datta | Updated on January 10, 2021

Healing touch: YK Hamied, non-executive Chairman of Cipla   -  REUTERS

Learn from past mistakes and acquire the right technology for the future, pharma doyen YK Hamied urges his compatriots

It’s 9.30 am when Dr YK Hamied calls from Spain, where he’s been for four months now, he says, due to pandemic-induced lockdowns and quarantines.

“It’s a sad situation,” he says, sounding uncharacteristically gloomy, as he quotes US expert Dr Anthony Fauci, who had cautioned ahead of the year-end festivities that the worst was yet to come.

The conversation veers to a recent development involving Dr Hamied, non-executive Chairman of home-grown drugmaker Cipla. A doyen of the pharma industry, Hamied was given a “lifetime achievement award” by the Organisation of Pharmaceutical Producers of India (OPPI), a platform largely of multinational drug companies.

Twenty years ago, Cipla would have been locking horns with many of them. So for OPPI to extend across the aisle with the award, does it signal “the times, they are a-changin” for the company, and the industry?

Hamied admits he was “flattered and taken aback” by the OPPI award. But there has increasingly been cooperation from the multinationals, not just with Cipla but others in the industry as well, he says. But the time has come for the Indian industry to rethink and repurpose, he says.

Explaining the shifting sands over time, Hamied says, “I abide by the laws of the land.” Between 1972 and 2005, India’s laws on intellectual property (without product patents) were different from those in the rest of the world. And Hamied was in the forefront of efforts to bring out critical drugs like the HIV/AIDS three-in-one drug Triomune, priced at less than a dollar a day. The feat from 2001 remains iconic and illustrates the generic pharma industry’s role in getting inexpensive drugs to those who need it the most.

Zeal for new drug discovery

In his award acceptance speech, Hamied observed that the indigenous pharma industry had developed beyond recognition since Independence. “In 1947, the turnover of the industry was ₹10 crores and in the year 2000 it was around ₹20,000 crores. Today, India’s pharmaceutical exports alone are in the region of $20 billion and turnover in excess of $43 billion.”

But “on a pessimistic note”, he adds, “we lag behind in new drug discovery and are essentially dependent on UK, USA, Japan, Germany and Switzerland for new drug innovation. After attending a meeting on technology advancement, I would like to suggest that we rethink, redesign, rebuild and repurpose our R&D”.

Newer technologies entering the industry need to be examined, he said, pointing to five such in healthcare — 3D, artificial intelligence, digitalisation and e-marketing, automation, and continuous manufacture.

“These are all exciting subjects, but in the context of India we should also aim at appropriate pharma technology. This should be scientifically sound, relevant, adaptable to local conditions and use available resources.”

National objective

Looking ahead into 2021, Hamied urges pharma companies to explore the development of new drugs and repurposing older ones, besides looking at combinations and innovative delivery systems.

Urging the industry to set aside its differences, he said it was important to work together, beyond divides such as North and South, or developed, developing and third world countries. “We must combine business acumen with a humanitarian approach and have a common goal of making quality, life-saving drugs accessible to all,” he says. “I belong to an older generation. We must learn from our past experiences, past mistakes, past missed opportunities and past challenges,” says the 84-year-old industry veteran.

During Independence, “there was a burning spirit of patriotism, nationalism, unity and a sense of purpose. We now require another national objective,” he says — namely, ensuring every Indian can have a decent quality of life.

Published on January 10, 2021

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