Cheaper vaccines from India are forcing global giants to slash prices. GSK announced its rotavirus vaccines at $2.50 per dose — or $5 to fully immunise a child — in response to a current tender administered by UNICEF.The offer is a 67% reduction in the current lowest available public price.
This is good news for many reasons. Preventable diseases kill over a million people every year, and one of the biggest factors in getting vaccinated is cost. India’s healthcare spending was estimated at US$ 40 billion in 2008, going up to 300+ billion in 2023. Forty billion is less than $40 per person, so saving 7-8 dollars on vaccinations alone for every one of the 26 million children born every year is a huge deal.
Development costs of vaccines and drugs are high and success is often uncertain. Pharmaceutical companies have used this to justify government enforced monopolies and per dose prices that are sometimes a 1000 times higher than the incremental cost of production. While this makes for good profits, it means severe lack of access in India, many African countries, and many excess deaths that could have been prevented. For years, India had what was called a process patent, not a product patent, which meant that if you could make a drug with a slightly different process, it would not get patent protection any more. How did this help India?
- Affordable drugs – Indian companies could make and sell drugs at a fraction of the cost without paying for drug development.
- Pharmaceutical Industry – This enabled the industry to grow and mature.
Of course, this also meant that India was considered an outlaw, and Indian pharmaceutical industry came under great pressure from the WTO to tighten patent laws, which it did. At the time, the concern (rightly) was that tightening patent restrictions would harm India’s pharmaceutical industry and reduce access to drugs. Has this come to pass? In some ways, yes. But the Indian pharmaceutical industry has also matured, and with government help, has been able to do its own development, clinical trials and production (which it was always good at). The focus on tropical diseases like rotavirus also means that US, European Companies, which have since moved away to treating chronic conditions like high cholesterol, erectile dysfunction, etc., have much more competition in the tropical diseases area and cannot charge premium prices to poor people any more.
So dear Canada, while you are negotiating with Europe about “free trade”, and trying to give European companies much greater patent protection for their drugs, know that this will very surely raise costs in the short term. Two important questions:
- Will Canada’s drug companies benefit?
- Will Canada’s consumers benefit?
Um, let’s take a look at Canada’s top 10 in 2009:
|Rank||Leading Companies||Country||Market Share (%)|
|4||Johnson & Johnson||US||5.3|
|Source: IMS Health|
There is one Canadian company in the top 10, and four European companies. Our pharmaceutical industry is not well positioned to be independent, or work to reduce Canadian drug prices, especially if laws strengthening patent protections for European companies come into effect. This will serve to weaken Apotex, and Canada does not have a big independent pharmaceutical company network born out of years of “isolation” to take advantage of any competition, or competitive advantages. So, while patent “reform” seems to not have hurt Indian industry as much as feared, it sure will hurt Canadian consumers.