Editorial: Developing drugs for the poor

Published in The Hindu on July 18, 2006

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has taken some notable steps to address infectious diseases common in developing countries and to help them gain access to drugs for diseases that are no longer endemic to them. By deciding to set up an inter-governmental working group to draw up a strategy to implement the recommendations of the Commission on Intellectual Property Rights, Innovation and Public Health, the world body has, like a few other international bodies, addressed the specific needs of the developing countries. The concern to keep the diseases afflicting developing nations under check is born out of the realisation that in today’s global village, developed countries can no longer remain insulated and no communicable disease can be regarded as affecting only the poor. The Commission has taken note of the failure of all governments to address sickness and poverty in developing countries and their consequences. The industrially advanced countries have paid a huge price for their indifference towards checking diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis, which have taken a heavy toll in third world countries. That the world has learnt its lessons and is determined not to repeat the mistakes is evident from the unprecedented global cooperation witnessed three years ago after the outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and, more recently, of bird flu. The cooperation in both cases was, however, more in basic research.

Behind the show of solidarity and concern for those suffering from diseases in the developing world lies a stark reality. The focus has been more on communicable and less on non-communicable diseases. While the premise that communicable diseases are more widely prevalent than the non-communicable ones in developing countries is correct, it is more relevant to the sub-Saharan African countries. Unfortunately, the pharmaceutical industry’s focus the world over has been more on developing drugs that have good market potential in developed countries and less on poor man’s diseases; the drug industry in India is no different. With the demand being low and gains from intellectual property rights continuing to remain unattractive, pharmaceutical firms have been shying away from catering to the needs of developing countries. Public-private partnerships involving governments, world bodies, international non-governmental organisations, and the pharmaceutical industry can address the issue of drug development for the poor. It has been well documented that, except in some rare cases, such alliances have delivered results where pharmaceutical companies have failed. India will do well to adopt the successful incentive structures put up in some advanced countries to spur drug development. So far the Indian pharmaceutical companies have been keen on developing drugs for the developed countries while many of the so-called poor people’s diseases suffer neglect.