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Encouraging signs from India to Africa

In words of encouragement for Africa, India’s Health Minister JP Nadda on Friday said that New Delhi will work closely with the continent’s nations on building a regulatory framework to make pharmaceuticals “accessible and affordable” without compromising with its quality, while asserting that AIDS can be ended by 2030 in both India and Africa. Noting that commodity security for medicines is a “major” area of focus, Nadda said that India is committed to ensuring that the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) flexibilities will be fully harnessed to provide sustained and uninterrupted access to the life-saving medicines. For the uninitiated, TRIPS is an international agreement administered by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that sets down minimum standards for many forms of intellectual of intellectual property regulation as applied to nationals of other WTO members. 

“India would work with the African Union on doing a regulatory harmonisation so that pharmaceuticals remain accessible and affordable and without compromising with quality,” Nadda said. Suffice to say, the Health Minister’s comments come at a time when serious doubts have been raised against India’s ability to abide by its strict intellectual property regulations that allowed Africa to acquire cheap generic drugs against dangerous diseases. Earlier during US President Barack Obama’s visit to India, Prime Minister Modi addressed the media, assuring that he would address all American concerns related to Intellectual Property rights especially in the pharmaceutical sector. As a result, the Government of India had set up a committee to examine IPR-related guidelines, taking inputs from major US pharmaceutical giants.

It is fair to say that African countries have suffered at the hands of deadly diseases like HIV, Hepatitis C, malaria and TB, among others. India’s generic medicine industry, however, has done more for developing world health outcomes than any Western aid agency. And lobbyists for American pharmaceutical giants are laying siege to it. As the South African Health Minister said before the India-Africa Forum Summit in New Delhi, “my message to India is that we truly rely on them and if they reverse their position now they will end up killing a lot of people in Africa, no question about it.” Under a Voluntary Licensing Scheme (VLs), the US pharmaceutical lobby wants India to limit the affordable generic category only to Indian consumers. In other words, they seem to be against having these drugs cheaply available to other third world patients. However, not one of India’s major pharmaceutical companies has applied for a compulsory license – settling instead for restrictive VLs. 

Instead, lured by the promise of higher profits, certain Indian companies are already striking deals with US pharmaceutical giants, with the Government of India playing the role of a benign observer. The ultimate tragedy is that the developing world has widely hailed India’s pro-public health intellectual property policy. It is India’s pro-public health policy that saw a 99 percent fall in the price of HIV drugs from $10,000 per person per year in 2000 to $100 per year today. Africa need affordable generic medicines exported from India. As a nation, India has a responsibility to millions of fellow citizens in Africa. Although New Delhi has not specifically addressed these concerns at the recent India-Africa Forum Summit in New Delhi, Nadda’s words do hold some promise. How the Government of India balances the interests of the American Pharmaceutical lobby and the citizens of Africa is yet to be seen.  
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