India, home to some of the world’s largest generic medicines manufacturers, is playing a frontline role in lowering the cost of cancer drugs.

Last year, it issued a compulsory licence for Nexavar, a drug that treats kidney and liver cancer and is patented by pharmaceutical giant Bayer. The compulsory licence overrides Bayer’s exclusive right to make and sell the drug and allows it to be manufactured at a lower cost.

The Indian government justified the licence by claiming that Bayer’s product was too expensive for ordinary Indians; Bayer set the price of a month’s supply of its medicine cost at $5,600 (about Sh500,000).

As a result of the government’s decision, the generic manufacturer must sell the drug for $176 (about Sh15,000) a month and pay Bayer a six per cent royalty on net sales. However, under the conditions of the decision, the drugs are not eligible for export.

The Indian government is now moving to issue compulsory licences for three more medications used to treat breast cancer, leukaemia, and in chemotherapy treatments. Patent expert Tahir Amin says it is not clear whether the terms of the compulsory licences will allow the drugs to be exported to developing countries, but says access to generic cancer treatments in the developing world is an issue of growing importance.

“The issue of accessing generics for non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like cancer, cardiovascular ailments, and diabetes in the developing world, including African countries, has not been discussed much. Given that NCDs pose a greater public health risk than any other disease, this is slowly getting traction in the public health space,” he says.