Greg Jefferys, a 61-year-old historian and author from Australia, hit international headlines when he flew to Chennai to use generic sofosbuvir to successfully cure himself of hepatitis C. He spent 1100th -just about $1000 -the amount it would have cost him if he were to use the patented version. Jefferys has since helped hundreds of patients access the medicine cheaply from here. Talking to Rema Nagarajan, Jefferys strongly criticises big pharma and the patent regime that is putting life-saving medicines beyond the reach of patients and allowing companies to make `obscene profits’
Did you have concerns regarding the safety and quality of the Indian sofosbuvir?
I have no concerns about Indian generics generally . Across the world, there are issues of quality control and there are good companies and not-so-good companies. India has some of the largest and best pharmaceutical manufacturers in the world. I actually get really angry when doctors in the UK or the US refuse to prescribe life-saving drugs because they are made in India. It reeks of racism or post-colonial arrogance! Did you know that I have had dozens of emails from people in the UK with hep C who have tried to get a prescription for Indian sofosbuvir and not one doctor in all of the UK would write it for these people. But I have had two prescriptions for Indian sofosbuvir from the UK. One was from a doctor who had hep C himself and the other was from a doctor whose best friend had hep C. No one other than that! It astounds me. Tens of thousands of people in the UK are suffering and dying simply because their GPs refuse to write them a prescription for Indian generic medicines.
In Australia, it is not illegal to bring in three months’ supply of a drug. But what about countries where it is illegal to bring in drugs from other countries? What should they do?
Most countries have laws favourable to their citizens importing medicines for personal use. There are only seven that I know of that totally prohibit this, and if I lived in one of those countries then I would bring the medicines in to save my life or the life of a loved one. Who would not!
Do you think there is a need for a worldwide civil disobedience movement to force governments to re-examine pricing of life-saving medicines?
I think that people should embrace the affordable and life-saving medicines being offered to the world by India, import them and use them. Their governments and advocates should encourage this but they do not because they are scared of the power and wealth of big pharma. Big pharma has developed many strategies to prevent this.At the moment, there is an extensive campaign in Australia, the UK and the US to instil fear of Indian generics in both doctors and the general public. This is done by whispers, cleverly placed press releases and out and out bribery. For example, the main hepatitis advocacy group in Australia, Hepatitis Australia, receives $240,000 per annum in “sponsorship“ from drug companies. Hep Australia generally dis courages people from using Indian generics. This is the case with most hep advocacy groups around the world. They all get major financial sponsorship from the drug companies. They claim this does not influence them but we all know that it does.
Also, doctors, hospitals and medical universities all get major funding from the drug companies for research projects. It is supposed to be “at arm’s length“ but is it?
What do you say about high pricing blocking access to a medicine that could possibly eradicate hep C virus of a particular kind?
The medicines that are now available could eliminate hep C from the earth in a decade but the greed of big companies prevents this.I am happy for drug companies to make a profit -but a healthy profit, and not an obscene one that means that tens of millions of people will suffer and die simply because they do not have enough money to pay outrageous prices.
Does it make sense to grant patents and protect predatory pricing even when pharma companies are not ready to open up their account books or make public how much it cost to `discover’ a drug? Is there a need to change the patent regime being enforced internationally?
I believe India has the correct attitude to patents, particularly drug patents. Set the bar high. Something must be truly innovative, not just an existing concept that has been slightly reworked, which is the case with Sovaldi (branded sofosbuvir) and the other new antivirals. Set the bar high, if it is not innovative enough then let the product be manufactured and sold on the open market. Big pharma uses its vast wealth to influence politicians and governments around the world to try to get them to set the patent bar low. It is incredibly important that there are countries like India that are independent and able to stand up against the pres sures from western commercial forces. India is a beacon of hope for so many people, like myself, who would die if it was not for India.
Why did you decide on Chennai? What was your experience like?
I have been to India a number of times but never to the south. I recently wrote a history book which was largely about an officer in the East India Company who was based in Madras from 1790 to 1812 so I wanted to see Chennai. It was very hot… 40+ nearly every day. But I enjoyed it. I always enjoy India.
First published by Times of India, Pune