It’s tough to be an Indian medicine-maker these days. Either customs officials in Schiphol Airport are confiscating your products for supposed patent infringement or a backroom Chinese entrepreneur is peddling clones of your medicines in Africa. An NGO, Health Action International, has shown 16 out of 17 medical consignments seized in the Netherlands last year were Indian. The alleged crime was that Indian companies were committing pharmacological fraud by ripping off patents owned by European multinationals. Nigerian authorities, meanwhile, warned of counterfeit malaria medicines that were manufactured in China but carried a ‘Made in India’ label.
This was the first official confirmation of a problem that had long been suspected: Chinese generic medicine firms riding on the coattails of their Indian counterparts. One way to look at it is to say questionable intellectual property charges and surreptitious counterfeiting are merely sincere forms of flattery. The quality and price of Indian generics are good enough to pose a threat to established Western drug barons and be targets for up-and-coming Chinese pharma bandits. The problem is that such back-handed admiration affects bottomlines — and there are few businesses as cut-throat as that of generic medicine.
Over half the profits of India’s pharmaceutical sector come from exports. Though obesity and other byproducts of affluence are making Indians clients for their own industry’s products, price controls ensure battling it out in Cameroon and California is necessary to an Indian industry’s survival. The Japanese drug industry, of course, took a more gentle approach to the Indian threat: they bought up India’s largest drug firm, Ranbaxy.