Talking vaccines, pricing and the future of patents with Cipla’s Yusuf Hamied

Updated on Mar 26, 2021 02:16 PM IST

20 years ago, amid the AIDS epidemic, he fought the good fight, faced off with Big Pharma and won. HT Editor-in-Chief R Sukumar interviews the 84-year-old scientist, chemist and chairman of Cipla.

 (Photo: Forbes India / Dinesh Krishnan)
(Photo: Forbes India / Dinesh Krishnan)

Yusuf Hamied, 84, chairman of Cipla, recalls the time when he was called a pirate. That was in 2001, and Hamied’s company was offering to sell for $1 a day, or around $350 a year, the then only available cocktail of AIDS drugs that Big Pharma was selling for $10,000 to $15,000 a year. In her book, Bottle of Lies, Katherine Eban has a fascinating anecdote about Cipla and Hamied’s jump into fame (or notoriety).

“On Feb. 6, 2001, at around midnight, Hamied was at a dinner party in Mumbai when his cell phone rang. The caller was the New York Times reporter Donald McNeil. “Dr. Hamied, is it true you offered $1 a day (to Doctors Without Borders)?” McNeil asked him. Once Hamied confirmed this, McNeil laughed aloud: “Dr. Hamied, your life will not be the same from tomorrow”.”

It wasn’t.

Hamied, white-haired, smiling, sunny as the weather in the Spanish town by the Mediterranean, Marbella, where he lives part of the year, definitely doesn’t look like a pirate, as a Glaxo executive once referred to him. “It was a very irresponsible statement,” Hamied laughs. “I told the (then) chairman of Glaxo, Richard Sykes, ‘Take me to court. If I’m a pirate, prosecute me.’” The availability of inexpensive AIDS drugs is held at least partly responsible for many countries around the world (including India and several in Africa) getting an upper hand in their fight against the disease.

We are talking about Hamied and Cipla’s good fight because of Covid-19, and because India (and South Africa, the main beneficiary of Hamied’s 2001 move) championed a failed move at the World Trade Organization to waive Covid-19 vaccine patents. Hamied, a scientist and a chemist (he famously still uses his chemistry notebooks from his days at Cambridge) believes the comparison isn’t apt: “All drugs required for HIV-AIDS were synthetic drugs, and in the synthesis of drugs, India, even at that time, was quite proficient. But vaccines are a different ballgame. You can pick up a patent of a vaccine manufacturer, and you still won’t be able to produce it. It’s like biotech. Humira, the world’s top-selling biotech drug (used to treat various kinds of arthritis), is surrounded by 247 patents. I free the patents, but what are you going to do with that?”

It makes sense when it comes to what are called small molecules, basically chemical compounds, usually ingested in the form of tablets. They are Cipla’s speciality. And there, in the context of Covid-19, there is hope, Hamied says.

“Merck has produced a drug called Molnupiravir; a 200mg capsule of it, they say, is the last word for Covid-19.” Indeed, early tests have been promising enough for people to call it Covid’s own Tamiflu (the Roche drug for influenza and bird flu). According to Hamied, “(Merck has) come to India and given all of us (generics companies) an open licence to produce the drug, which we are planning to do. We have already made 30 kilos in the lab, and we will try to get approval in India. It’s that easy to do.” But a vaccine, he points out, is very different from a small molecule.

Read more about Cipla’s early years and earliest successes

Cipla, Hamied says, “would love to partner with companies to produce drugs that we have no knowhow of — maybe we could partner a large vaccine manufacturer. I would certainly look at it, very, very seriously.” He pauses as if the idea has just struck him. “We are looking at the messenger RNA vaccines,” he adds. If a partnership comes through, he wouldn’t mind “setting up a new establishment in India to do this”. This may make sense, Hamied says, “(because) I have a funny feeling Covid has come to stay, and what would be best is to develop a universal vaccine that could prevent influenza and Covid simultaneously.”

That would be an ideal next step for Cipla, founded in 1935 by Hamied’s father Khwaja Abdul Hamied, who was born in Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh, and met Hamied’s mother, Luba Derczanska, a Jew born in what is now Lithuania, in Berlin, where they were both studying. They were married in 1928. Hamied was born in Wilno (then in Russian Poland; now Vilnius, Lithuania) in 1936, during a visit by his parents there. By then, his father was a successful businessman in Bombay (now Mumbai).

In 1935, Hamied Sr founded The Chemical, Industrial & Pharmaceutical Laboratories (Cipla). That makes the company, at 85, just a year older than Hamied. Earlier this year, the company celebrated this milestone by publishing a book, Caring For Life: The Cipla Story (by Tulsi Vatsal). Hamied refers to the book several times during the interview. “I hope more people read it; not as a Cipla book, but as an Indian book. It is a story of an Indian enterprise.”

The book took five years to produce, Hamied says. “You must understand the mission statement of Cipla — success does not make a company great; what really matters is its contribution to society and its contribution to making life better for everyone. I think that sums up Cipla’s attitude.”

It is the beginning of his seventh decade in the company, Hamied says, as he lists key milestones in Cipla’s journey. “The first turning point for us was Gandhi’s visit to Cipla in 1939, when he instilled in us the importance of self-reliance and self-sufficiency,” he says. As World War 2 broke out, the supply of medicines from Europe to India dried up, and Cipla stepped in, supplying medicines not just in India but to the war effort.

But after Independence, Hamied says, “it was a slow march for health care”. He returned to India in 1960, when Cipla was a “very small company”. Through the 1960s, the company, and others, pushed the government to open up the industry, which “they did in 1972”. His reference is to the Patents Act of 1970 and the Patents Rules of 1972, which allowed only process patents — a move that pushed some multinationals out of India.

“From 1972 to 2005 (when product patents were again allowed), we had the legal freedom to produce medicines that had been developed abroad but were not available in India. That really saw the growth of companies like Cipla.” And when the law was changed in 2005, companies such as Cipla, Hamied says, looked outward. “Right up to 2000, we are 90% India and 10% exports; today we are 40% India and 60% exports.” But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t respect intellectual property, Hamied adds: “We don’t mind paying royalties, but what I have been against all my life is monopolies.”

The next phase for companies such as Cipla, Hamied says, is new drug development, but this can’t happen if there is no “freedom in pricing”. His reference is to the fact that India controls the prices of most drugs. “Do you want affordable low-price medicines, or do you want India to be at the forefront of new drug development and technology?” When this writer suggests that the Indian government perhaps wants both, Hamied breaks into a laugh again.

“You can’t have both; we all want both.”


    Sukumar Ranganathan is the Editor-in-Chief of Hindustan Times. He is also a comic-book freak and an amateur birder.

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