Ranbaxy’s travails in the United States with the quality of drugs the company produces is symptomatic of the much larger malady that plagues India. What further lowers the quality of medicines available here is the big menace of counterfeits. Year after year India tops lists of producers of fake drugs. What is a mere trickle of counterfeit medicines evading detection becomes a deluge in our countryside. The reason why such fakes exist is fairly clear cut. What takes Big Pharma a few billion dollars to move from the test tube to the pharmacists’ shelves can sometimes cost a few paise to produce. Typically, research into a drug takes several years and humungous amounts of money. But the chemicals making a pill cost a billionth part. Add to that a poor population with no social security, and you have a readymade market for counterfeit drugs. A poor man in search of an affordable remedy is not a situation that can be wished away.
The risks associated are immense. The consumer has no avenue for redress against spurious medicines. The conviction rate for those found peddling spurious drugs is virtually zero. More insidiously, the effects of fake medicines can be easily camouflaged as poor treatment by the attending physician, despite the fact that the delivery mechanism is principally routed through the pharmacist. Besides, the section of the populace these counterfeits are directed at is the most vulnerable — ignorance and poverty making a very potent dose. Finally, it undermines the process through which newer drugs are researched and produced.
Having tried — and failed — to either supply subsidised medicine directly to the poor or keep drug prices down by administrative fiat, the government cannot allow this Wild West version of the market to exist. And what is essentially a policing issue can’t be solved with proposed legislation that hands out death sentences to drug counterfeiters. The market provides answers to most of the issues it throws up, and in this case broad-based medical insurance could be one. Till that happens, spurious drugs must be weeded out of the system.