YUSUF K. HAMIED: A Very Pushy Drug Dealer - by Meenakshi Ganguly Back   Home  
If Yusuf K. Hamied came down with a grave illness requiring expensive medical treatment, he could afford it. Hamied controls the third largest pharmaceutical company in India and owns acres of invaluable real estate in Bombay. "God has been kind," he says.

But for uncounted millions the opposite is the case, and 19 months ago Hamied did something remarkable for them. At a European Commission medical meeting in Brussels, he expressed the conviction that no companies should be allowed an oligopoly on life-saving drugs—and then proceeded to destroy one of the most outrageous of them all by offering to sell anti-AIDS drugs at a fraction of the going price. As a result, developing countries are starting to get the drug cocktail that has saved thousands of lives. "There is an epidemic on our hands," insists Hamied. "How can you justify selling something that costs $200 for $10,000?"

What Hamied did was cut through the self-serving arguments of Western drug companies that put shareholders' interests before the lives of millions. Indian pharmaceutical companies, including Hamied's Cipla, have an advantage: it's legal in India to copy a medicine designed abroad and put it on the local market (as long as the companies can prove they use a different manufacturing process). But they can't export to countries with stricter patent laws. When Hamied went to Brussels in 2000, a year's treatment with the AIDS cocktail cost a patient $10,000 to $12,000. Western countries holding the patents insisted they had to earn back their original R. and D. expenses. Hamied said it was time the victims got treatment regardless of the patent issues and offered to sell his cocktail for $800 to $1,000 per year. A few weeks later he lowered that price to $600 for government purchases and $350 for the Médecins sans Frontières aid group. Today, Thailand and Brazil have begun manufacturing and selling the generic AIDS cocktail. Last month, Cipla won World Health Organization approval to market the AIDS drug wherever local governments agree to allow its sale.

Hamied is proof you can do well by doing good: the anti-AIDS cocktail he sells sustains lives while helping maintain his own gold-plated standard of living. (To get around Bombay he drives a gold Lexus and periodically flies off to different parts of the world to catch up with conductor Zubin Mehta, a childhood buddy). Hamied, who earned his doctorate in chemistry from the University of Cambridge, considers the AIDS battle part of a broader campaign to maintain India's loose patent regime. India's patent laws are supposed to graduate to World Trade Organization standards in 2003 if the country ratifies the wto's intellectual property treaty. Hamied says that could make his people as helpless against profiteering drug companies as the sub-Saharan AIDS patients of the 1990s—and India has an estimated 4 million hiv-positive cases. Hamied has the fight of his life ahead—on his own turf.
Published in Time