Cipla’s Yusuf K Hamied is India’s medicine man
The success of the Indian IT services industry in outsourcing gave us the adage of being the ‘back-office to the world’. An equally successful Indian industry at the global level has been the Indian pharmaceutical industry which has proven itself of delivering cost-effective and high-quality generic drugs globally, giving India the moniker – the ‘pharmacy to the world’. This is a piece about one of the oldest success stories in Indian pharma – Cipla and its chairman, Dr Yusuf K Hamied. Shrabonti Bagchi of The Mint talks about her Zoom interview with the octogenarian who now lives in Southern Spain. Dr Hamied is rarely seen giving interviews to the media but this is a special occasion ahead of the launch of a book on the company’s 85 year history titled “Caring For Life: The Cipla Story Since 1935”, by Tulsi Vatsal.
At the core of Cipla’s success is a strong underlying purpose “…company founded by Hamied’s father, Khwaja Abdul Hamied, in 1935, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s call for self-reliance and self-sufficiency and a desire to make affordable drugs available to the country’s poorest citizens”
Despite being the heir apparent, Dr Hamied had to start off his stint at the company from ground zero: “Having graduated with a bachelor’s in chemistry from Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1957, followed by a PhD in chemistry, again from Cambridge, Hamied returned to India in the early 1960s and started working at Cipla—as general dogsbody, not a leader-in-waiting. “In the beginning, I remember cleaning the floors in the tablet department also. Actually, it took two years for me to even get employment in Cipla, because I was related to a director. The board of directors was very strict. So for one-and-a-half years, I worked almost as a trainee with no salary, with a PhD degree, cleaning the floors. So what I decided was, I would learn the pharma industry backwards. Nobody will know more about the industry than I do, and that’s exactly what I did. I learnt how to make tablets, I learnt how to make injections…I did just about everything,” he recalls.”
After his father’s demise, Dr Hamied continued the purposeful existence of the company which took a dramatic effect in the fight against AIDS: “In September 2000, Hamied jolted the European Commission on AIDS during a meeting that was to change the course of global history by telling them that he could break the monopoly of the big pharmaceutical companies that had put AIDS drugs beyond the reach of the people who most needed them, and supply AIDS treatment at less than $1 per day. Suddenly, Hamied was a hero in the war on AIDS, and the man who had made big pharma shake in its boots. “The assumption that AIDS drugs were not for the poor—that they could not afford them and therefore that there was no point even thinking about ways to get people treated—was blown out of the water,” wrote Sarah Boseley in The Guardian in a 2003 profile of Hamied, calling him “generic drugs boss”. “Now, in the post-Hamied era, the genie will not go back in the bottle. The big drug companies have been forced to drop their prices for these new and powerful drugs and offer them to a market they had no interest in developing—the impoverished African states where a whole generation of parents, teachers and workers are dying.”
Although Western media labelled him as something of a renegade—almost a Robin Hood figure in global pharma—Hamied seems reluctant to accept that image today. “We did not break any laws. How are we bad boys then? We abide by the laws of the land. If we had broken any laws, we would have been prosecuted,” he says. But did he enjoy, at some level, being the nemesis of Big Pharma? “No. No. What I did enjoy is the pioneering work that Cipla did. What the Cipla team did, it’s not me, saved the lives of all the people, the 8,000 people that were dying in Africa per day because they could not afford treatment…and today, by the grace of God, over 20 million in Africa alone are being treated for AIDS. It’s a big change, it’s a very big change.”
.. Even at 84, Hamied stays compulsively updated about the global healthcare industry. In fact, later during the interview, when I ask what he does “for fun”, he laughs and says most of his time is spent reading medical and scientific journals. “You have to define the word fun. Fun when you are 15 years old is one thing, fun when you are 30 years old is one thing, and fun when you are 85 years old is another thing. Today, I think fun means good health, a peaceful life and taking an interest in whatever you do. Even today, I might spend four-five hours reading on newer drugs, what’s coming out, what’s not coming out, what can we do in terms of incremental innovation?”