Which comes before: Patients or patents?

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 on 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 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 said. “Eighty per cent 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 US 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 per patient per year and $15,000, 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 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.

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, the Indian patent office ruled the drug was simply a new form of an existing treatment that was developed before 1995. 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 3 of the Indian Patent Act of 2005.

“The Indian Patent office is creating hurdles to pharmaceutical innovation,” says Brandi Robinson, a Novartis spokesperson. Since the company gives away the drug to “99 per cent of the people who need it”, the court case is about patent rights and not access to life-saving drugs, Robinson said. Pharmaceuticals are a $600-billion-a year industry and there are “lots of opportunities to make money”, MSF’s Hoen 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. — IPS