The ugly nexus between pharma companies and rich countries

New Delhi Updated: Jul 20, 2020, 10:28 PM IST
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File photo Photograph:(Reuters)

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Pharma companies are going after profits during the pandemic while rich countries are looking after their self-interest.

The Indian drug reglator has pulled up Glenmark Pharma and had sent a notice to  the company for overpricing of Fabi-Flu, an anti-viral drug that has potential to treat COVID-19.

The issue came up after a member of parliament wrote a letter to the health minister. The letter claims the cost proposed by Glenmark is definitely not in the interest of the poor, lower middle class and middle class people of India. Glenmark says a patient must take 122 Fabi-Flu tablets over a period of 14 days. Until last week, a single tablet cost Rs 103. Given that the total cost of treatment would run up to Rs 12,500.

India's per capita income is pegged at Rs 1,20,000. For most indians, a full course of Fabi-Flu will cost nearly 10 percent of their yearly income. For the poor it's out of reach. Last week, Glenmark cut the price to Rs 75 per tablet.

Now the government has asked Glenmark for explain the cost structure. Inevitably, Glenmark's shares closed in the red on Indian stock exchanges. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson is trying to boost his stock with britishers. He is busy signing agreements, laying claim to potential vaccines. He has secured 90 million doses of two vaccines -- 60 million doses of the French Valneva vaccine and 30 million doses of the German Pzifer-bio-n-tech vaccine. Uk already has an agreement in place to get 100 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine.

Why are rich countries investing millions of dollars in vaccines that have not got approval yet?

The answer is self-interest. Uk's Business Secretary Alok Sharma's comments make it amply clear. He said ''We are doing everything we can to ensure the British public get access to a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine as soon as possible''.

So, these deals will help UK get the vaccine much before the world. There is another reason: Unlike the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine or the Pfizer-bio-n-tech vaccine, the French Valneva vaccine is not a frontrunner. Why then is the British government ready to partner with the company?

To ensure there is enough manufacturing capacity to deliver any successful candidate. The vaccine is for its people and not for the entire world. Valneva has its factory in Scotland. This is brilliant forward-planning by Boris Johnson to get a monopoly over the vaccine. He is even ready to fund clinical trials and the expansion of the factory.

The UK is not the only country doing this. The US is equally guilty of monopolising access to vaccines. In June, US bought all the Remdesivir doses available in the world -- more than 500,000 doses which is all of drugmaker Gilead's production for July, August and September. It is one of the few drugs that seems to work against COVID-19.

Pharma companies are going after profits during the pandemic while rich countries are looking after their self-interest. It's turning into a nexus between pharma companies and governments.