Mumbai, 21 December 2012 — As the Supreme Court considers its verdict in the case of Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis vs. the Indian government, people living with HIV, Sankalp Rehabilitation Trust, health groups and the international medical humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) protested outside the company's Mumbai offices against the potential impact of Novartis's legal battle in India. If Novartis is successful, the case would severely restrict access to affordable medicines for people in India and developing countries the world over.
"Just like me, there are millions of people in developing countries alive today because of affordable generic medicines made in India," said Ramesh, HIV positive and peer educator with Sankalp. "As an Indian, I feel it is my duty to safeguard people's access to affordable medicines."
Novartis has been engaged in a legal battle over a part of India's patent law that led to the company being denied a patent in 2006 for the salt form of imatinib, a blood and intestinal cancer drug (marketed by Novartis as Glivec). The part of the law, Section 3d, is intended to prevent 'evergreening,' a practice common in developed countries, whereby companies are given successive 20-year patents for making modifications to existing drugs. In India, a weakening of the law would allow medicines otherwise not patentable in India to receive patents.
A single medicine can have several applications for separate patents, each relating to a different aspect of the same medicine. "The question here is should a drug company get a monopoly for doing something obvious to a drug that already exists," said Eldred Tellis, Sankalp Rehabilitation Centre. "We're looking to the Supreme Court to tell Novartis it won't open the floodgates and allow abusive patenting practices."
MSF relies on quality, affordable generic medicines made in India to treat more than 80% of the 220,000 people in its HIV projects, and uses Indian generics to treat many other diseases and conditions. India is often called the 'pharmacy of the developing world - competition among generic manufacturers in India is what has brought HIV medicine prices down by nearly 99% since 2000, from US$10,000 per person per year to roughly $150 today, which has helped make scaling up treatment to millions of people possible.
"We're already paying very high prices for some of the new drugs that are patented in India. If Novartis' wins, even older medicines could be subject to patenting again, and it will become much more difficult for us in future to provide medicines to our patients being treated for HIV, hepatitis, and drug-resistant TB." said Dr. Petros Isaakidis an epidemiologist at MSF's Mumbai HIV treatment programme.