22 Aug 2012

Indian court battle threatens the supply of affordable medication

It is a little known fact that India manufactures one-fifth of the world’s generic drugs, including antiretroviral medicines for HIV and Aids. About half of the generics are sent abroad, largely to poorer countries with a desperate need for medicines.

Pharmaceutical companies are none too happy about this, not least because of the massive difference in cost between a generic drug and one that that has been patented.

In 2009 Novartis took the Indian Government to court (for the second time) in a bid to obtain an Indian patent for its leukaemia drug imatinib mesylate. This is a drug which is patented as Glivec in nearly 40 countries, and as Gleevec in America.

The difference in price is substantial. When it first tried to patent Glivec in India in 2006 it cost £1,650 per patient per month. Generic versions at the time cost £127.

Today, the Supreme Court in India should have been hearing the case to make a final decision but once again it was postponed. We are told that it will be heard on 11 September, although that needs to be taken with a large pinch of common old table salt.

The charity, Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF), believes that should Novartis win, the effect will be felt worldwide. They argue that patents would be granted far more broadly in India, which would mean blocking the competition among the multiple producers which allows prices to be driven down.

They also say that this would restrict access to affordable medicines for millions in India and across the developing world.

Novartis India told the Guardian that it was about “protecting intellectual property to advance the practice of medicine, not about changing access to medicines”.

Yet if India loses, they will not be able to supply the developing world with affordable medicines for a myriad of diseases, including cancer and HIV/Aids.

Indeed, in the case of HIV and Aids treatment, MSF says that competition amongst generic manufacturers has helped to bring the cost of drugs down from more than $10,000 per patient, per year in 2000 to $150 today.

“The absence of patents in India has also helped in the development of three-in-one HIV/Aids medicines called fixed-dose combination pills, and formulations for children,” MSF says.

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