View: India is now the modern day Dhanvantari to the world

By Gajendra Singh Shekhawat

It was at a time of the great samudra manthan or churning of the ocean, as the Puranas say, that Lord Vishnu took the avatar of Dhanvantari and gifted the nectar of immortality to the Devas. Now at a time when the world is going through a great churning because of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is India which is playing the role of the god of medicine.

India is shipping out much-needed hydroxychloroquine tablets to countries severely hit by COVID-19, and for this we have earned rich praise from the US, Israel and Brazil among others. But this isn’t the first time that India has stepped in to help countries in need. When the AIDS epidemic hit over 22.5 million in Africa, India stepped up supply of anti-HIV drugs to the region living up to its image as a provider of ‘low cost, high quality’ medicines. While drugs from western manufacturers would have cost $10,000 per year per patient, Indian medicines came at a fraction of that cost – $400 per patient per year. African countries ended up treating 18 times the number of patients, spending only two billion dollars instead of 150 billion dollars

India’s strength lies in producing generic medicines, in which it is a market leader. About 70% of our pharma industry produces generic medicines, thus keeping the cost of production 60% lower than that of American and European counterparts. This stratospheric reputation of our pharma companies was possible because of the Ayyangar committee report of 1959, which formed the bedrock for the The Patents Act,1970. At that time India was importing 80% of the medicines it needed; 35 years after the act was passed, Indian producers were manufacturing 80% of our national demand.

One of the upshots of the act which helped India’s evolution as a pharma major was the patenting of process. This led to a culture of reverse engineering of pharmaceuticals, and the subsequent evolution of generic medicines. The beauty of The Patents Act, 1970 was further boosted by a 2005 amendment which introduced product patenting.

Because of very strict protocols for something to be classified as a new invention under the act, India’s patent laws are some of the toughest. They promote genuine inventions while blunting exploitation of masses by global pharma companies. This public-first approach has made Indian pharma the darling of developing nations. India exports 55% of its medicines to tightly regulated markets, which speaks volumes about the formidability of this sector.

Many international NGOs, like the Nobel Prize winning ‘Doctors without Borders’, have lauded India’s focus on generic medicines. UN agencies swear by their quality and price points. Through the Jan Aushadhi Kendra, this government has supplied our people with generic medicines at a fraction of the price sought by branded western companies. In the US, 80% of all prescriptions are for generic drugs, with India fulfilling 47% of it. Thus, India is saving livers not just in developing nations, but also in superpower countries like the US. It is thus no surprise that the maximum number of USFDA-approved pharma plants outside the US are in India.

In the present crisis, India has the capacity to heal the world without financially overburdening our neighbours and friends. By May, we will have the capacity to supply 55 crore hydroxychloroquine tablets. The present government’s wholehearted support to friends in need today will add muscle to our soft diplomatic power. The world will thank the Prime Minister for balancing national needs and international demands at such a crucial juncture. If a vaccine against the coronavirus is discovered, India – which has the third largest pharma industry and meets 50% of the global demand for vaccines presently – has the manufacturing capacity to produce it for the whole world.

When Dhanvantari distributed amrit, or the nectar of immortality, among the Devas, he did so without discrimination. While we take care of our home we also take care of others. We believe in Vasudhaiva kutumbakam and treat every people across the world as our family. And the way our government and pharma industry have stepped in during the present crisis, we have shown the world that we live by this lofty ancient credo even in the present age.

The writer is Union Jal Shakti Minister

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