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Medicines for all: Woman threatens anti-India drug cabal in America

Nina Mahmud, who is struggling to help her cancer-afflicted father-in-law, is set to appear before a US commission and make an appeal for India's patent regime, which makes expensive medicines accessible to all people.

world Updated: Feb 14, 2014 02:05 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times

Nina Mahmud can't bear to watch her husband grieve as his father battles liver cancer. His last bottle of Nexavar, the only thing keeping him alive, runs out on Saturday.

"He is living bottle to bottle," Mahmud, 35, said, fighting back tears. Of Egyptian descent, she was studying to be a nurse in Florida when her father-in-law called.

The family was devastated; her own career plans died.

But there was hope: Mahmud could tell her story at US International Trade Commission's hearing into India's patent regime, which began on Wednesday.

Nexavar, which was compulsorily licensed by India in 2013 to the collective indignation of its maker and other multinationals, was the same drug that doctors said could save her father-in-law.

The drug is at the core of the US case against India that the commission is investigating at the urging of Congress - that India's disregard for IPR harms US businesses.

Their main worry, however, is that if emerging countries such as Egypt began following the Indian model, they won't be able to charge arbitrarily fixed high prices.

India is not appearing before the commission, as a sovereignty issue, but it is defended by Indian trade bodies and US activists supporting easy access to medicines.

Mahmud wants to join them, and depose. If she is not allowed, she plans to make a personal appeal for help to Bayer president Philip Blake, who testifies on Thursday.

Bayer, a German drug major, is likely to argue that patent infringements are bad for business, preventing research, which being typically expensive makes drugs expensive.

In Egypt, where Mahmud's father-in-law Fathi Aboseada, 68, lives, two weeks of Nexavar can cost $1,700 (R1.5 lakh). He makes about $300 a month, and he is not poor.

The drug was so expensive in Indian once, only 200 of 15,000 patients needing it could afford it, DG Shah of Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance told the commission.

A month's dose cost $4,508 (Rs 2.8 lakh), too costly for most people. But letting people die because they could not afford a medicine that could have saved them was not an option.

Using a globally accepted trade tool called compulsory licensing, India made Bayer license a local company to make Nexavar, which retailed for $141 (Rs 8,800) a month.

Shah told the commission Bayer's profits doubled as a result, contrary to expectations and fears, which, however, continue to dominate the narrative, without merit.

Mahmud wants to testify in India's support.

Every night, she, her husband Mohamed Aboseada and their two sons gather around a computer to Skype with Fathi Aboseada - "we want him to live, he is like my father…"

Mahmud has even considered flying to India to get her father-in-law's monthly dosage on Nexavar as it would still be cheaper than what it costs them at home in Egypt.

Fathi Aboseada was visiting his son at Fort Lauderdale, Florida around the time Mahmud was expecting her second son. Late 2013, he began feeling unwell.

He was diagnosed with cancer by doctors in Egypt, who started him off on Nexavar. His health improved shortly, but, no, he couldn't be taken off the drug. It was his only lifeline.

Mahmud said she often joked with her husband about her dream to visit India - and she still wants to. Now, however, it is about Nexavars for her ailing father-in-law, and not the Taj.