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Feel the Bern: Sanders is the US President Indian healthcare needs

Vishakh Unnikrishnan | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:50 IST
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The pressure
  • US-based industrial lobby groups, including the pharma lobby, wrote a letter to President Obama
  • They criticised India\'s intellectual property rights policy, and said "it falls short of industry expectations"
The man to support
  • Pharma companies want to patent drugs in India, but SC has set a precedent by rejecting Novartis\'s proposal for Gleevec
  • In such a scenario, the only potential US President who can stop the pharma lobby\'s onslaught is Bernie Sanders
More in the story
  • Sanders\'s past moves that indicate he\'ll be good news for India
  • What\'ll happen if Donald Trump comes to power?

Last week, various US-based industrial lobby groups and business associations wrote to President Barack Obama, complaining about India's pace of attracting foreign investment. In particular, they targeted the National Intellectual Property Rights Policy, which "falls short of industry expectations".

The letter also assessed Prime Minister Narendra Modi's two-year regime, recalling the promises made at the beginning of his tenure that had "raised high hopes and positive rhetoric", but saying that they were "yet to be translated into concrete measures to improve the business environment for US companies operating in and exporting to India".

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US industrialists, including pharma groups, wrote to President Obama, criticising India's IPR policy

Of all these comments, the one on India's IPR policy is most significant, since out of the 16 associations that signed the letter, two had interests in the pharmaceutical sector.

On the other hand, there's Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who seems to understand how harmful patents could be, if corporates pilfer them for profits and ignore the growing concerns of patients.

Multinational companies have time-and-again pressurised the US government to get India's patent laws altered, and if someone like Donald Trump gets elected, it seems the US will easily yield to the pressure.

Also read: Why India needs to resist US pressure on pharmaceutical patents

These laws allow for affordable drugs for a vast majority of the population; the generic drug market in India has allowed for treatment of many life-threatening diseases.

The Gleevec case

For starters, Sanders has already spoken out against Big Pharma - the theory that big pharmaceutical companies operate against the public good.

On 25 May, the 74-year-old 'socialist' criticised the United States Trade Representative Michael Froman for allegedly pressurising Colombian officials, who were planning to issue a compulsory licence for the cancer medicine Gleevec. Gleevec is on the World Health Organisation's list of essential medicines.

A compulsory licence can overrule a patent, giving pharmaceutical companies the liberty to manufacture the drug without paying royalty to the patent holder. This is usually done in cases where patients are not able to afford the drug, or there is a lack of stock.

Gleevec has been embroiled in litigation in India - it took the Supreme Court seven years to decide on whether pharma giant Novartis could patent the drug in India. And its ruling against Novartis stands as a landmark on the argument between patient concerns and corporate greed.

Sanders's 2007 Bill

In 2007, Sanders had submitted a little-talked about Bill that would prohibit any person or entity from owning the right to exclusively manufacture, distribute, sell or use a drug, a biological product, including the manufacturing process of the drug or the biological product.

Now, while the Bill did not go anywhere, it reflects Sanders's stands on the relevance of healthcare and the availability of generic drugs. As he states on his website: "Access to healthcare is a human right, and that includes access to safe and affordable prescription drugs. It is time to enact prescription drug policies that work for everyone, not just the CEOs of the pharmaceutical industry."

In 2007, Sanders submitted a Bill that would prohibit anyone from owning rights over medicines

Senator Sanders has already noticed what big pharmaceutical companies can do, and the importance of generic drugs. He has also urged the Obama administration to hold a public hearing to determine whether the National Institutes of Health in the United States should override a patent on a prostate cancer drug that has proved to be too expensive for many patients.

Also read: India allows Gilead to patent Hepatitis C drug. Here's why it is cruel

In the case of the drug Xtandi, Sanders noted that the development was largely done through taxpayers' money, and hence, the government and the institutes involved in the research should decide whether the patent holds ground.

Why India should root for the Bern

The Sanders solution would be too much for the pharma lobby to digest. He wishes to import drugs, especially alternatives to expensive drugs, and make them readily available, thus overruling patent laws.

Although he has proposed import of drugs only from Canada at the moment, it won't be a surprise if he extends the proposal to include India.

As his Bill stated, while granting a patent, "the degree to which the drug addresses priority healthcare needs, such as global infectious diseases and neglected diseases that primarily afflict the poor in developing countries" must be kept in mind.

In the current scenario, Sanders is far behind Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic nomination. But healthcare benefits are a big reason for India to root for Sanders over the next few months.

Also read: Pharma CEO blames 5000% hike in AIDS medicine price to 'capitalism'; Hillary Clinton outraged

First published: 31 May 2016, 10:58 IST
 
Vishakh Unnikrishnan @sparksofvishdom

A graduate of the Asian College of Journalism, Vishakh tracks stories on public policy, environment and culture. Previously at Mint, he enjoys bringing in a touch of humour to the darkest of times and hardest of stories. One word self-description: Quipster.

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