Is India about to become the next hotbed for original pharma research?

Pass the paracetamol.

The Indian pharmaceutical industry could be about to step up to the big league with the launch of a new original diabetes drug, Lipaglyn, developed by homegrown pharma group Zydus Cadilla. With annual revenues of $1bn, Zydus’ chairman and managing director Pankaj Patel, expects the new drug, which tackles both high blood sugar and cholesterol in a single pill, to more than double that amount, calling it a potential “blockbuster”.

Due to be released in the coming months in India, it will take another 3-5 years of clinical trials before being cleared for sale in the more tightly regulated western markets. After years of the Indian pharma industry producing cheap knock-offs of western medicines, it is “time for India to give back,” according to Patel, “(having) benefited for years from the research and development efforts in other countries.”

This reputation for a culture of imitation drug production has led to repeated accusations from western pharma companies of poor IP protection by Indian authorities. US giant Pfizer, among others, have called on lawmakers to do more to protect the millions spent on R&D, which will not be turned into revenues if the Indian generics market is allowed to continue churning out cheaper alternatives. This culminated in US Secretary of State John Kerry discussing the issue with Indian policymakers during his recent visit to the country.

But that has still not stopped some companies falling foul of the Indian system, with the Supreme Court rejecting Novartis’ bid to protect its new leukemia drug with a patent in January, paving the way for India’s pharma companies to produce generic versions at a fraction of the cost. Gleevec, which can cost up to $31,000 a year in India is now being undercut by the generic version, which costs just $2,100 a year.

Still, Zydus’ Lipaglyn could be the start of a move from generics manufacture to original research across the rest of the Indian pharma industry. G. Shah, secretary-general of the Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance, sees this latest development as critical if Indian pharma companies, such as Glenmark and Biocon are to compete on the world stage; “Our credibility is at stake now… People have been branding us as a copycat industry, and this is a departure from that,” he said. “We are not just copycats, but we are transforming into creating original research products also.”

Zydus have spent close to $450m developing new drugs since 2001, while Glenmark spent nearly $1billion on R&D in the last year alone. However, not everyone shares this enthusiasm, with Gayatri Saberwal of the Institute of Bioinformatics and Applied Biotechnology, Bangalore, last year voicing his concern over the Indian pharma sector’s R&D abilities. Based on analysis of the patents being granted in the sector, he found a tiny minority were for genuinely original research, thus making the “prospects for original drug discovery in India poor,” he said. “There is probably a long way to go for Indian companies to undertake highly innovative work”.

Just what success the Indian industry is able to achieve internationally will not become apparent on these shores for some time yet, with the development of news drugs taking years. So we will have to stick to our tried and tested remedies in the short term at least, just as the Indian generics industry will also continue to cause a headache for western pharma companies until their original research starts to bear fruit. Pass the parcetamol.

Photograph: Getty Images

Mark Brierley is a group editor at Global Trade Media

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.