New Delhi- In a world where health disparities and corporate interests often clash, the remarkable journey of Nandita Venkatesan, a tuberculosis survivor turned health crusader, stands as a shining example of resilience and advocacy. Time Magazine, known for spotlighting global change-makers, recently honoured Nandita's unwavering dedication to affordable healthcare access alongside Phumeza Tisile, a passionate health activist hailing from Cape Town, South Africa.
Their collective efforts not only defeated a pharmaceutical giant's patent renewal bid but also ushered in a new era of affordable generic medicines for a life-threatening disease.
Nandita Venkatesan is no ordinary journalist; she, along with her co-petitioner Phumeza Tisile, championed the cause of impoverished individuals grappling not only with tuberculosis but also the substantial financial burdens it imposed. Both petitioners were victims of a side effect from an injection that resulted in complete hearing loss. A safer alternative, a drug manufactured by Johnson and Johnson, existed, but its cost could have deterred most people. Therefore, when the multinational corporation attempted to renew its patent, Nandita and Phumeza faced the formidable task of preventing the company from obtaining a secondary patent. To the relief of millions, the Indian government rejected this secondary patent, which could have maintained their monopoly and rendered the life-saving, highly effective drug unaffordable. The Mooknayak had the privilege of speaking with Nandita Venkatesan, whose commitment to health equity earned her the well-deserved spot on Time's list of 100 emerging global leaders.
Speaking to The Mooknayak, Nandita Venkatesan, an alumna of IIMC, stated, "The multinational argued that they had invested a significant amount in Research and Development and therefore needed to recoup their costs. Although this argument may appear plausible, they had already held exclusive rights to the drug for a 20-year period, which provided ample time to profit from the high demand for the product." She explained that the company attempted to influence their stance by altering the product's composition slightly and claiming it as a new drug. This strategy is known as "Evergreening." Fortunately, these arguments were dismissed by the government.
Nandita's unwavering perseverance ensured the rejection of the pharmacy major's patent renewal efforts, paving the way for more affordable generic versions to enter the market.
Time Magazine, in its announcement, described the rejection of the second patent as a "landmark victory" that would significantly reduce the drug's price. The article also mentioned that Johnson & Johnson had agreed to make generic versions more accessible in lower-income countries.
When Nandita Venkatesan was diagnosed with intestinal tuberculosis in 2013, it marked her second encounter with this dreaded disease. She had already undergone a 15-month treatment for the disease in 2007 as an undergraduate student at the age of 17. However, this time, the disease returned with even greater severity.
This time, she contracted a rare form of intestinal TB that was more severe than her previous experience in 2007. She spent 90 days in the hospital and had to undergo six surgeries, in addition to receiving daily injections of Kanamycin. Nandita recounted, "Being in the hospital for the second time at the age of 23 was not easy." She had managed to achieve a "cure" during her first bout with TB in 2007, but this time, the 90 days in the hospital did not lead to "Good News." She lost her hearing due to the side effects of the Kanamycin injection, a detail that was not disclosed to her earlier.
She recalled that in 2013, social media had not yet evolved, so she had limited avenues to learn about other people's experiences. Her parents were her sole source of motivation. "I lost hope in life as I couldn't answer phone calls, talk to friends, or take on any job. I remained unemployed for four years. Later, I found employment with The Economic Times," recounted the 33-year-old TB survivor.
After rejoining the workforce, Venkatesan, a journalist, began advocacy work aimed at dispelling misconceptions about this curable disease. People often assume that only the very poor are susceptible to TB, but the reality is that no one is exempt because the bacteria are airborne, she explained. Nandita's relentless campaign against tuberculosis took her to the United Nations, where her speech received a standing ovation from the audience, which included the then Health Minister JP Nadda. She is also a member of the Lancet Commission on Tuberculosis.
Nandita's family in Mumbai had to sell their family home to cover the exorbitant medical expenses. Nandita asserted that freeing the drug from monopolies would enable other manufacturers to produce it, drastically reducing its cost and making it more accessible as a generic medication, thereby alleviating the financial burdens on patients.
Nandita Venkatesan, along with her co-petitioner Phumeza Tisile are not just an inspiration for the people grappling with life-threatening disease but also for the numerous activists who are waging battle against the rapacious profiteering of the corporates.