Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) or Doctors without Borders, is the international humanitarian medical aid organization that is active in 69 countries, serves populations affected by epidemics, armed conflicts, natural calamities and manmade disasters.
MSF has relied heavily on generic drugs, much of which has been sourced from India, to deliver health care to some of the most deprived people.
Addressing healthcare exclusion has been a major part of its work, and this has often meant locking horns with big pharmaceutical companies.
Why MSF is in the news recently?
MSF was in the news recently for its decision not to take any more funds from the European Union and member countries in protest against their tough refugee policies.
Jerome Oberreit, Secretary General of MSF being interviewed:
1. MSF has been a part of the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi). How does it counter the ills of the current paradigm?
The DNDi was actually started in 2003 with the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize money providing the seed funding. In 10 years we have developed six new therapies. Based on DNDi’s estimates we reckon that the cost to develop a new chemical entity to be €100-150 million. Current studies place the cost for a similar exercise by the industry at anywhere between $802 million and $2.6 billion!
2. Tell us about the role that generic drugs play in your work globally.
We have limited resources and generic drugs play a vital part in our programmes. These generics that we source from India constitute nearly two-thirds of the drugs we use for HIV, TB and malaria. Take the case of AIDS; it is on account of generic drugs that the annual cost of the ‘AIDS Cocktail’ combination treatment has been brought down from about $10,000 in 2000 to about $100 today. This has made it possible for another 16 million people to have access to treatment. The role generics play in affordable healthcare hardly needs emphasis. In many cases they are a lifeline.
3. MSF has expressed concern over the ongoing RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) talks. Are you apprehensive that agreements such as these could impact generic drugs production in India?
India has always maintained the right balance between awarding patents to drugs and its commitment to public health. We are particularly concerned about two provisions that are being discussed in the RCEP talks, data exclusivity and patent term extensions.
Data exclusivity is a backdoor route to awarding monopoly status to drugs. And patent term extension will extend the monopoly hold of a pharmaceutical company on a drug beyond the current 20 years. Both these provisions go beyond the mandates of international law.
4. You have been campaigning against the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as well. What are your concerns there?
TPP introduces far-reaching monopoly protection for pharmaceutical companies that would unnecessarily strengthen, lengthen and broaden patents. This will push drug prices up. We have also pointed out the flaws in the current biomedical innovation paradigm that seeks to reward R&D through monopolies and high drug prices. Cash-rich pharmaceutical companies have not taken up R&D in antibiotic development because they must be affordable and should be used sparingly.