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Three years ago C. Patel was dying of AIDS. Today he is healthy thanks to generic Indian made anti-HIV drugs. He says that if Novartis wins the supreme court challenge and his drugs go back under patent he will not survive. (Lana Slezic/Lana Slezic)
Three years ago C. Patel was dying of AIDS. Today he is healthy thanks to generic Indian made anti-HIV drugs. He says that if Novartis wins the supreme court challenge and his drugs go back under patent he will not survive. (Lana Slezic/Lana Slezic)

Drug companies watching India's drug patent case Add to ...

India’s Supreme Court will hear final arguments starting this week in a case that could have life-or-death implications for millions of people with critical illnesses such as AIDS and cancer, not just in this country but across the developing world.

The case pits the government of India against the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis and it hinges on one clause in an arcane patent law. The Indian and international business worlds are watching it closely: They will see the verdict as a signal of how intellectual property law will be handled in this booming economy.

In essence, the issue before the court is this: Novartis wants to patent a formulation of a leukemia drug called imatinib mesylate, which it markets as Gleevec in North America and Glivec in the rest of the world. In 2006, the Indian Patent Office denied that patent, saying that it was not a new medicine but a salt formulation of a known drug. Novartis took that decision to court, and has lost twice on appeal; judges said the company had not shown the drug would have greater “efficacy” than the already-patented molecule, as required by the patent law. Novartis says that efficacy clause is discriminatory. This is the last showdown in a long battle.

At stake is India’s $26-billion (U.S.) generic drug industry, which supplies not only most all of the medicines used domestically but also acts as “the world’s pharmacy” and helped to fuel major gains in public health around the developing world over the last 15 years. Countries such as Zambia are able to treat hundreds of thousands of people with HIV in their public sector health programs because they buy generic Indian anti-retrovirals that cost $120 per patient per year, rather than the brand name versions that cost $12,000 per patient per year.

“If the Supreme Court broadens the way ‘efficacy’ is interpreted, it will open a flood of patents,” said Leena Menghaney, a lawyer with the Access to Essential Medicines Campaign of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), which uses Indian-made generic drugs to treat 136,000 people with AIDS around the world. “It’s not just a cancer drug. Everyone else will be stuck with that decision.”

Other companies that have filed similar applications will likely also get patents if Novartis succeeds in getting a patent on this drug, she said, and many medicines that are now produced cheaply here will move out of the price range of people in India and in developing countries around the world who need them.

Drug companies say India’s law is unfair, and robs them of the ability to recoup the investment they have made to research and develop these drugs. “Novartis is seeking clarity on whether we can rely on patents in India and whether we as a research-based organization can continue to invest in the development of better medicines for India,” said Ranjit Shahani, who heads the India operations of Novartis. “Patents are the primary incentive supporting development of new medicines and without them investment in R&D will plummet.”

In this, Novartis has the backing of the rest of the international pharmaceutical business – Mr. Shahani also heads the Organization of Pharmaceutical Producers of India, the lobby for the brand-name drug industry – which is eyeing populous India as an important potential market at a time when business is slowing in the West as drugs invented in the early 1990s start to come off patent.

Lobby groups for other sectors in Indian industry also argue that if the country’s economy is to grow India must be seen as a country that respects intellectual property. The patent law has been the focus of intense pressure on India from the United States and the European Union in free trade negotiations. Even within the coalition governing India there is a pro-business faction, which includes several powerful cabinet ministers who make no secret of the fact they dislike the comparatively liberal law.

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