Well, it is time to get back to the Mashelkar committee fiasco — Abi has a couple of links — to two outlook stories and an editorial at Business standard.

Here is the Business standard solution:

In view of all this, it is clear that there is need for a fresh look at the whole issue of patentability. A good opportunity for doing so has been provided by Prof. Mashelkar withdrawing his committee’s report. However, his offer to produce a freshly cast document will only lead to extending the life of the controversy over the panel’s views and how it arrived by them. It would be wiser to apply closure to this chapter and start a fresh examination of the complex issues involved.

Though personally I see nothing wrong with giving the Mashelkar committee another chance, the threat of an extended controversy is real. Hence, this solution looks pragmatic to me.

Having said that, here is what outlook says:

In an exclusive interview with Outlook, Mashelkar maintains that neither he nor his report are anti-national. “At the end of giving one’s best to the country for 64 years, I and my family feel deeply pained and grieved. There are several misperceptions about Mashelkar,” he says. According to him, the general impression is that the report “should have addressed the issue of how to make drugs available and accessible to the poor. But that was not the mandate.”

As per the committee’s terms of reference, it had to look into TRIPS-compatibility of a limited patent regime. “The TOR was whether it was compatible or not. The answer was either yes or no, and why. It wasn’t about public health. It was on a technical and legal issue,” explains Mashelkar.

I agree with Dr Mashelkar; the mandate was not about making the drugs available to poor. It was about a legal issue. However, as I stated in one of my earlier posts in this blog,

The issue at stake is a legal one; from the submissions made to the committee, it is clear that the legal opinion is divided; there is no clear discussion/exposition as to why the committee took the stands it did. On the other hand, the reasons of national interest that the committee propounds (which is not relevant to the legal issue at hand) are not completely convincing to me.

So, though it is wrong to accuse the committee of not coming up with means of making the medicines affordable by the poor, in my opinion, the committee, by propounding its “national interest” theory, in some sense, invited such a criticism.

The outlook story also says:

Mashelkar says he was surprised when he found out later that “8-10 sentences were verbatim” compared to Basheer’s paper. He maintains it was a “copying error by the subcommittee” that wrote the draft and it was impossible to find out the mistake as the committee received dozens of submissions and presentations from the industry and the academic field. “I take full responsibility as I have been very scrupulous in the past, and the nation has trusted me with 11 other reports (including one on Bhopal gas tragedy). It’s a wrong assumption to say it’s plagiarism and to attach motives to it are distortions,” says Mashelkar. In a telephonic talk, Basheer contends that “just because a research project has been sponsored by a pharma association, it doesn’t mean the analysis is biased.” In his paper, he wrote that “this legal opinion is prepared in my private capacity, but is endorsed by the IPI.” Other academicians say that one ought to independently assess the merits of an academic report to see if its conclusions are well-reasoned and based on rigorous analysis, before dismissing it as being biased.

There are two issues here. One is about plagiarism; as we saw in one of my earlier posts, plagiarism is always about ethics and not about legality. Hence, Mashelkar’s stand point about accepting full responsibility for the plagiarism allegation since the report fails to meet the highest standards is commendable. On the other hand, the “copying error” theory does make it look like the committee did not pay enough attention, however painful such a conclusion be.

The second issue is about whether plagiarism automatically makes the report conclusions suspect. The answer is that it does not. However, since the committee does not supply any strong (legal) arguments supporting its conclusions in its report, the plagiarism allegation, at the least, implies that the committee did not pay enough attention. In that sense, the report certainly left much to be desired.

So, what are the lessons to be learnt from all this? We are living in an age where technical opinions matter; giving a technical opinion automatically makes the scientists take stands; so, they have to be careful about the implications of their opinions. This is not to say that they should not give any technical opinion which might not be popular; it means that while giving such an unpopular opinion, they have to make a strong case to convince their opponents of the worthiness of their opinion. In addition, the scientists should also lay their methodology open for public scrutiny and make everybody understand that they have followed the highest standards in their pursuance of the solution.

PS: Here is the list of earlier posts on this issue in this blog:

  1. To patent or not to patent
  2. To patent…Edition 2
  3. To patent…Supplement to Edition 2
  4. On Mashelkar committee (and plagiarism)