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India's medicine man strikes again

Last updated on: May 15, 2012 12:50 IST

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Rajiv Rao

To some -- especially western drug companies -- he is a 'pirate'. To others, mostly those in developing countries, he is an unparalleled hero. Either way, Yusuf Hamied, 75, is perhaps the most talked about man in pharmaceutical circles in the last decade.

Most recently, Hamied has courted controversy by dropping the price for one of Cipla's cancer fighting drugs. Multinational drug giant Bayer, the original maker of the drug called Nexavar, charged Rs 2.8 lakh per month for it.

Then, the government stepped in and awarded a 'compulsory licence' to Hyderabad-based pharma company Natco, which started making it for a bargain-basement price of Rs 8,800. Cipla, which had been selling the same drug for Rs 28,000, decided to drop its price to Rs 6,600, which was even below Natco's floor-setting price. It decided to drop the price of many of its other cancer drugs as well.

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Image: Yusuf Hamied, chairman and managing director, Cipla
Photographs: Courtesy, Cipla

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"MNCs like to operate in areas of monopoly, no two ways about it," Hamied told Business Standard recently. "If they don't get monopoly, they like to delay your process as much as possible," he added. "With 1.3 billion people, we can't afford to play their game. The health of the country is at stake," he says.

Still, looking out for the underserved and impoverished has been good business for Cipla, which is expected to bring in over Rs 7,000 crore (Rs 70 billion) in net sales for the just-ended financial year with an expected net profit of over Rs 1,200 crore (Rs 12 billion).

Hamied, according to Forbes, is worth $1.7 billion, and spends six months of the year outside the country.

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Photographs: Vivek Prakash/Reuters

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It is the year 2001, more than any other, that sharply focussed the raison d'etre of Hamied. The Gujarat earthquake had just struck, leaving devastation in its wake. It was Hamied's wake-up call.

He sent medicines to the state but there were other thoughts working away in his head. "Look at what the hell is happening in our country. AIDS is the worst tragedy this country could ever experience -- with the possible exception of a nuclear war -- and it is a completely foreseen tragedy.

Why are we all donating for Gujarat and doing nothing about this great plague? I decided right then that, if I had to, I would do it by myself. People think this is all about Africa, but it's not. For me, it's about my own home," he told The New Yorker magazine.

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Photographs: Reuters

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Soon after, Cipla began selling dirt-cheap antiretroviral AIDS drugs to African countries. Thanks to Hamied, annual medication, that normally costs up to $24,000, began to cost around $350 in many parts of the developing world.

It was nothing short of an epic development in the history of disease and medicine. Hamied went further.

Not only did he sell the cocktail of drugs that are used for AIDS treatment for a dollar a day, he was also able to combine three of the medicines that go into the AIDS cocktail into one single pill, making it much easier for patients to be regular with their medication regimen.

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Photographs: Lucas Jackson/Reuters
Tags: AIDS , Cipla , India , African

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Today, at least 50 per cent of AIDS patients in impoverished countries who consume medications, do so with Cipla's drugs. Many countries have reformulated their public-health systems now that there are cheap drugs available to combat a disease that has ravaged the world in the last two decades.

Hamied didn't stop there. When the world began confronting the possibility of a bird flu pandemic, pharma giant Roche said that they couldn't produce enough of its drug Tamiflu to spread around the world.

Moreover, for a country like Vietnam, where the virus originated, the medication at $60 for a five-day course was simply too expensive. Hamied stepped in and filled the gap.

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Photographs: Vivek Prakash/Reuters
Tags: Roche , AIDS , India , Vietnam

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Hamied's worldview is probably coloured by many things: A nationalist father who was a Muslim from Aligarh, who started Cipla in 1935 and supplied Indian troops free medici#8800 his Lithuanian Jewish mother, whose parents died in the gas chambers of Nazi Germany; seeing his multi-ethnic and multi-religious home of Bombay going up in sectarian conflagration in the nineties.

He was 23 when he returned from Cambridge, armed with a Phd in Chemistry, and joined the family business where he has stayed ever since, helped by his brother and other family members.

As beloved as he is in poorer regions, he is regarded as a scourge in the West by many. "Stealing ideas is not how one provides good health care,'' Shannon Herzfeld, a spokeswoman for the American pharmaceutical industry, once said, referring to Hamied.

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Photographs: Reuters

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The reason for their ire is because western pharma companies spend hundreds and millions of dollars on drug research, they say, and people like Hamied rob them off their ability to recoup their investments in R&D.

Or do they? "If you examine the world's top 50 drugs, seventy per cent of them are marketed by companies that didn't invent them in the first place," says Hamied. "Lipitor, Pfizer's blockbuster drug, was not invented by them. Similarly Roche's Tamiflu was not invented by it," he adds. What MNCs do, says Hamied, is 'evergreen' drugs coming off patent, by tweaking them slightly and extending their lives.

Ultimately, these companies are simply used to making 'obscene profits', says Hamied. And this is something that the country simply cannot afford.


Photographs: Vivek Prakash/Reuters

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