The Robin Hood of pharma

Dr Yusuf Khwaja Hamied’s stance against monopoly and profiteering have made him infamous among pharmaceutical companies worldwide, as he works hard to make medicine affordable in developing countries

It was during World War II that leading pharmaceutical company Cipla helped win India’s independence – but that would not be the company’s crowning achievement. Cipla would go on to define India as the ‘pharma capital of the world’ and save millions of lives, helping to establish access to medicine as a fundamental human right. It is not an overstatement when company chairman Dr Yusuf Khwaja Hamied says: “For more than 75 years, we have made medicines and history.” 

In 1935, India, under British control, was completely dependent upon imported medicines that were frequently unavailable and rarely affordable. It was then that the current Cipla chairman’s father, Dr Khwaja Abdul Hamied, set up what was initially called Chemical, Industrial and Pharmaceutical Laboratories – today’s Cipla. His vision: to make India self-sufficient. 

Hamied got his chance to do just that four years later when Mahatma Gandhi approached him with a request to supply the British with medicines during World War II, with Britain promising to grant India independence in exchange for its co-operation. The chairman agreed, bartering trauma, malaria and other medication for the country’s independence, which was delivered in 1947. 

But Cipla still faced considerable setbacks. Due to archaic patent laws left over from colonial rule, India was unable to manufacture the active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs), otherwise known as ‘bulk drugs’, and formulations that were desperately needed. When the founder’s son and present chairman, Dr Yusuf Khwaja Hamied, returned from his PhD studies in Cambridge, England, in 1960, it became clear to him that something had to change. Frustrated at these restrictions, he helped form the Indian Drug Manufacturers Association (IDMA) to rally for change. 

“Even after independence, and right up till the 1970s, the multinationals ruled the pharma industry with their high-priced drugs, and nobody was bothered,” says Hamied. “Then in the 1960s we took up the fight and we were successful.” The breakthrough came in 1972 with the passing of the new Indian Patents Act, which allowed for any molecules to be synthesised by Indian companies so long as the method of manufacture was different from that of the originator. The Indian pharmaceutical industry boomed. Cipla paved the way in importing new drugs previously unavailable in the country and selling them at affordable prices. Over the following decades, Cipla’s factories sprung up throughout India – today numbering more than 40 – and its Vikhroli factory became the first in the country to gain US FDA approval for the manufacture of ‘bulk drugs’. 

Another breakthrough came in the 1980s when the HIV/AIDS virus swept the world and millions of people were unable to afford the medication, which cost between US$10,000 and $15,000 per person per year. Cipla broke new ground when it offered Triomune, the world’s first antiretroviral triple drug cocktail tablet, at the cost of less than a dollar a day, making medication available to millions and forcing other pharmaceutical companies to drop their prices in one fell swoop. “We are being humanitarian, but we are not doing charity,” explains Hamied. “We are not making money, but we are not going to lose money either.” 

What he is averse to is exploitation and monopoly. 

“For a certain US FDA drug, the price in America is $24,000 per person per year. My drug is also US FDA approved and I am selling it to Africa at $96 per person per year. Where is $96 and where is $24,000? At $96 I can still afford a good existence. So the question arises: where, and how, does one set the costing and how does one set the pricing?” he muses. “If something costs 100 rupees, you can’t sell it for 100,000.” 

This thinking extended to cancer medication in 2012, when Cipla slashed the cost of six drugs by 76 per cent. Further to this, Hamied campaigned for the Indian government to allow the use of compulsory licensing, a facility that can allow companies to manufacture existing life-saving drugs for sale in countries where the originator’s prices are extortionate. “First, I want what is best for my country and second, what is best for the developing countries,” says Hamied. “We have to decide our own destiny.” 

A metaphorical spanner was thrown in the works in March 2005 with the passing of a new patent law that could choke off the supply of medication to the poor. The act came as a condition for India to join the World Trade Organization and means the introduction of licensing fees for generic drugs already sold in India and a hike in prices for replicating new drugs. This is expected to hit AIDS patients particularly hard as the virus is quick to develop a resistance to old drugs. “When the Indian government changed the patent law in 2005, it started the ball rolling,” says Hamied. “The impact of monopoly will really hit India after 2015. In my personal opinion, it has permitted genocide in health care.” 

The new legislation has been praised by others in the industry, as stronger patent protection will facilitate multinational investment in the country and protect original research. But the head of Cipla heralds the update as a step backwards. “If you are in a health care business like Cipla then it is not only business,” he says. “You are into changing lives. There has to be an emotional humanitarian approach. If you are in health care, you have an obligation.” 

Hamied’s altruistic attitude towards marketing and his stance against monopoly and profiteering have made him infamous among pharmaceutical companies worldwide as the ‘Robin Hood of pharma’. His unpopularity has seen Hamied face charges of violation of intellectual property rights alongside general widespread criticism. “Of the world’s top-selling drugs, the majority of them are marketed by companies who did not invent them,” Hamied explains. “I am not against multinationals, I am against monopoly.” 

Cipla has won multiple awards for ‘best company’, ‘most trusted pharmaceutical brand’ and ‘innovation’ worldwide, and currently offers one of the best centres for palliative care in India, as well as world-renowned research hubs into respiratory diseases.


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