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Cipla’s offer was not idle. While India has strong patent protection in many sectors, it has maintained lax patent regimes in agriculture and drug manufacturing to aid its poor and encourage indigenous industry in these vital sectors. As a result, drugs cannot be patented in India. This allows companies like Cipla to reverse-engineer bestselling products with impunity and legally sell the knockoffs cheaply at home.

Not surprisingly, the pharmaceutical giants have long viewed Cipla as a pirate and a global threat. Because these firms thrive off their R&D fruits, they guard their intellectual property ferociously. They dread nothing more than a cascade of generic copies and falling prices.

It’s easy to see why. Take, for example, Pfizer’s miraculous, patented antifungal agent Diflucan (fluconazole). Some 10 percent of Africa’s AIDS sufferers need a daily tablet of this drug to stave off the lethal brain inflammation cryptococcal meningitis. Pfizer, which sells this drug in the West for $25 or more per pill, has laudably agreed to give some away in South Africa. But it has only halved its price elsewhere on the continent-still far beyond the financial reach of most who need it. Cipla sells it in India-legally-for 64 cents.

Under normal conditions, the drug manufacturers could rightfully object to powerful free riders like Cipla. But given the crisis at hand, these firms need to view things differently. They should applaud Cipla for stepping into the breach where they will not. There is little threat to business; with its feeble price reductions, Big Pharma is certainly not selling many high-priced drugs in Africa anyway. And many, many people are dying.

The roles of pirate and hero can be reconciled. What’s needed is a way to carve out an exemption to patent protection during bona fide epidemics. There are plenty of analogies to draw on. The world over we let ambulances ignore red traffic lights as they rush to respond to emergencies. Even more pertinent, in times of catastrophe we allow public officials to declare “states of emergency” that replace some normal rules of the road with a more germane set. In the face of a regional crisis like the one in Africa, perhaps the World Health Organization could make a similar designation-encouraging the temporary suspension of IP rights in the region so that, on an emergency basis, any willing drugmaker can distribute its lifesaving wares at cost.

AIDS in Africa has surely reached epidemic proportions. It’s time to stop business as usual and declare an IP state of emergency.

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Tagged: Biomedicine

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