A joint venture between India's Cipla and a local pharma company that has just opened in Uganda is all set to provide relief to millions in Africa suffering from HIV infection and AIDS.
In October, a month before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made it to Kampala to attend the Commonwealth meeting, a 15-acre potato garden made way for a high-tech pharmaceutical factory. The factory is a joint venture between Quality Chemical Industries (QCI) of Uganda and Cipla of India. It will manufacture Triomune, the full triple therapy combination of anti-retroviral (ARV) necessary to treat HIV and AIDS.
Once the trial runs end, the authorities say the unit will be able to start producing two million pills every day, rising to 1.8 billion a year. The surplus will be exported to neighbouring countries.
So important is the project that Uganda President Yoweri Musseveni is personally supervising the progress. Uganda is one of the worst AIDS-hit countries in Africa, says the health ministry. AIDS has led to the largest number of orphans, shorter life expectancy and rising poverty caused mainly by treatment.
And although Uganda has achieved considerable success in battling AIDS, it has always relied on cheaper and effective Indian drugs, whose exports are now barred by New Delhi's accession to TRIPS (trade related intellectual property rights) pact of the World Trade Organisation.
Even now, Indian drugs are hugely popular in Uganda. "Earlier, the reach of the Western medicines was very limited because of its cost," explained Yasin Masani, director of the Kampala-based Astra Pharma, which imports pharmaceuticals and surgical products.
"Once Indian drugs started to come to Africa, around 1988-89, there was a near revolution," Masani, who is from Gujarat and lives here, told IANS. "Prices of AIDS drugs immediately dropped. Drugs costing $3,500 fell to $350-400." Agreed A. Shah, a doctor who studied in India, lives in Kenya and practises here: "Thanks to affordable Indian medicines, life in Kenya has become very easy. I believe it is the same story everywhere in Africa.
"Even local doctors recommend the Indian medicines. It is really helping to take on AIDS," Shah said in a telephonic interview. At a drug store in the heart of Kampala, an IANS correspondent witnessed a steady stream of African women - and a few men - wanting to buy Indian medicines whose quality is overseen by Ugandan authorities.
India has been the world's leading producer of generic anti-retroviral(ARV) drugs because it was one of the few drug-producing countries that did not obey regulations on patenting. Once New Delhi agreed to consider changes in its patent law, under which its companies could face legal action by WTO if they kept producing and selling such generic drugs, Africa was in ferment.
There was a demonstration outside the Indian high commission here. Activists petitioned Indian leaders, including Manmohan Singh, not to jeopardise the lives of Africans hit by AIDS. ARVs, while not being a cure, can help AIDS patients return to a completely normal life as long as they have adequate nutrition and clean drinking water. It has made AIDS a manageable affair.
To beat WTO rules, Indian manufacturers decided to set up factories in African nations, rather than just exporting the drugs. These factories mean that African countries are no longer dependent on others' skills - while Indian businessmen can continue to make money.
This is where the Uganda factory comes in. It will produce Triomune, a combination containing lamivudine, stavudine and nevirapine. It will also make the anti-malarial combination Lumartem. Said Emmanuel Katongole, managing director of Uganda's QCI, which has teamed up with Cipla for the factor: "Our first client is going to be the government, which is committed to providing free ARVs for all those who need them.
"For us TRIPS is a window of opportunity," Katongole added. "India has ratified the TRIPS agreement, so it ceases to be a source of generic drugs for Africa." Africa has 22.5 million HIV/AIDS patients - making up 68 percent of the global total, according to UNAIDS. India itself has around 2.5 million cases.
Source: Kaiser Family Foundation