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HEALTH-INDIA: Patients Before Patents, Groups Urge

Stephen Leahy

BROOKLIN, Canada, Jan 29 2007 (IPS) - A quarter of a million people from over 150 countries don’t think a multinational drug company should seek to overturn a provision of India’s patent law that permits the manufacture of low-cost life-saving drugs for the world’s poor.

Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis AG went to India’s High Court Monday to challenge India’s new patent laws despite months of pressure from health organisations working in the developing world.

“If Novartis wins it could mean the end of India’s generic drug industry,” says Tido von Schoen-Angerer, director of the Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines, which launched a global petition to pressure the company.

India has become the pharmacy for the world’s poor. More than half of all the developing world’s HIV/AIDS patients rely on low-cost generic drugs from India, von Schoen-Angerer told IPS.

“Eighty percent of the 80,000 HIV/AIDS patients in MSF programmes receive generic drugs from India,” he said.

Many global health programmes like UNAIDS 3X5 Initiative and the U.S. Agency for International Development’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PepFar) also rely on Indian generics saving millions of dollars, he said.

Generics mean the difference between spending 200 dollars per patient per year and 15,000 dollars, according to MSF.

India did not allow the patenting of pharmaceuticals until 2005, when it was forced to as a condition of its entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO), says Ellen ‘t Hoen, director of policy advocacy for MSF.

However, the WTO’s 2001 Doha Declaration allows developing countries to manufacture generic drugs and override patents in times of public health crises and to export these to others that don’t have the ability to make them.

“Big pharmaceutical corporations have been pushing to ignore Doha and obtain higher levels of IP (intellectual property) protection through free trade agreements and lawsuits,” Hoen said in an interview.

India’s 2005 patent law only allows drug patents on completely new compounds invented after 1995. When Novartis filed for a patent on its leukaemia drug Glivec (Gleevec in some countries), the Indian patent office ruled the drug was simply a new form of an existing treatment that was developed before 1995. This was India’s first ever drug patent rejection.

Novartis acknowledges Glivec is an improved version of an older drug. And despite the fact that the company gives the drug away free to anyone in India who can’t afford to buy it, it wants the courts to overturn the patent decision and is challenging Section 3d of the Indian Patent Act of 2005.

“The Indian Patent office is creating hurdles to pharmaceutical innovation,” says Brandi Robinson, a Novartis spokesperson in New York.

Since the company gives away the drug to “99 percent of the people who need it”, the court case is about patent rights and not access to life-saving drugs, Robinson said in an interview.

Without strong patent protection rights, companies will have little incentive for making investments into the discovery of lifesaving drugs, Novartis argues.

“Here in India, the People’s Health Movement fought hard to make sure our government implemented a law that put people’s health before patents and profits,” said Amit Sen Gupta, a co-convenor of the People’s Health Movement, a global coalition of health activists now based in Cairo.

“But now Novartis is trying to force a change in our patent law, which could deprive people suffering from life-threatening diseases and conditions,” Sen Gupta said in a statement.

Hundreds of thousands of AIDS patients are living today because of India’s generic drugs, says Loon Gangte of the Delhi Network of Positive People, an AIDS activist organisation.

“If Novartis wins, it will affect the lives of AIDS patients,” Gangte told IPS.

Leading medical journals such as The Lancet, global health organisations and officials in many countries have all asked Novartis to drop the case. MSF launched a petition that now has nearly a quarter of a million people from over 150 countries who expressed their concern about the impact of the Novartis case on access to medicines in developing countries.

“It feels like we’re back in South Africa in 2001,” said von Schoen-Angerer.

Novartis was one of the 39 companies that took the South African government to court five years ago in an effort to overturn the country’s medicines act that was designed to bring drug prices down.

“The current economic model of drug R&D doesn’t work for the developing world,” said Hoen.

Under this model, high levels of patent protection for at least 20 years and often longer means companies with proprietary products have monopolies and can charge whatever price they want, guaranteeing money for research and plenty of profits.

“In some cases this works, boosting R&D investment but in many cases, the money doesn’t go into research,” Hoen noted.

Pharmaceuticals are a 600-billion-dollar a year industry and there are “lots of opportunities to make money”, she says.

Free handouts from drug companies aren’t the answer either. These benefit a few thousand people, but by no means do all drug companies have such donation programmes and they are often short term or one time only offers, says Hoen.

“We need a new and affordable system for drug research and manufacturing,” she concluded.

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