Agence France Presse

Dhaka, March 28:

Pharmaceutical firms in Bangladesh are hoping a new Indian patent law banning Indian companies from manufacturing cheap generic drugs could prove a tonic for their exports.

India’s parliament, in line with an agreement brokered with the World Trade Organisation (WTO), approved a law on Wednesday that prohibits the country from copying and selling low-cost generic copies of drugs patented elsewhere after 1995, including those used to treat HIV-AIDS. The law replaces legislation which allowed India drug makers to copy patented products using a different manufacturing process. Although Bangladesh is a member of the WTO, it does not have to pass similar legislation until 2016 because it is designated as one of the 49 least developed countries (LDCs). “India’s law is a big advantage for us because our companies will continue to copy patented drugs whereas the Indians cannot,” Nazmul Hassan, CEO of Bangladesh’s second biggest drug maker Beximco Pharmaceuticals, said yesterday.

“It means we can now sell generic drugs including HIV-AIDS anti-retrovirals and cancer drugs much cheaper than the Indians,” said Hassan who is also general secretary of Bangladesh Association of Pharmaceuticals Industries said. Global health activists and aid agencies have criticised the Indian law, which they say could threaten millions of HIV-AIDS and cancer patients who depend on cheap Indian generic drugs. France-based Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) said 50 per cent of the people living with HIV-AIDS in the developing world depend on generic drugs from India, which is the world’s fourth-largest producer of medicines by volume but only 13th by value — an indication of the relative cheapness of its products. However drug firms disputed claims that millions of HIV-AIDS and cancer patients were threatened by the law.

Kamal Nath, Indian commerce minister, told parliament that concerns over the rise of medicine prices locally were also baseless as only 10 out of the 195 drugs being sold in the domestic market would be covered by the new patent law. Still, Bangladesh says the passage of the law gives it the opportunity to enter the market for HIV-AIDS drugs, particularly in Africa. “We have started manufacturing five anti-retroviral drugs according to World Health Organisation standards and have applied for registration of the drugs in Kenya and East African countries,” Hassan said.

Drug manufacturing is a $700 million industry in Bangladesh with earnings of $25 million from exports of generic drugs last year, he said. “Most of the big companies see the WTO agreement as a big opportunity to grab more export market share. And to get a slice of the export market, you need to qualify by certain standards,” said Pervez Hashim, head of the country’s biggest drug maker, Square Pharmaceuticals. Square, Bangladesh’s largest listed company with annual revenues of around $100 million, has set up a $40 million plant in the past year that is awaiting certification by the US Food and Drug Administration and Britain’s drug authority. “We will go into manufacturing of HIV-AIDS drugs soon,” Hashim said. He added that he expected Indian companies may now move operations to Bangladesh to keep manufacturing generic drugs cheaply. Sun Pharmaceuticals last year became the first Indian company to set up a plant in Bangladesh and several others are looking for land in the export processing zones to set up plants here, officials said.