If ever there was a court case that could save lives then this was it. On Monday 1 April the Indian Supreme Court stuck two legal fingers up at the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis by ruling that the company could not patent the cancer drug Glivec.
As Big Pharma bosses watched their share prices fall with furrowed brows, health campaigners were celebrating a verdict that could have a massive impact on the ability of the world’s poor to access life-saving medicines.
Patents are a useful way of preventing competition, allowing pharmaceutical companies to keep their prices high. And even though a patent will typically last for 20 years, for many big companies this is not enough. So they often slightly modify the drug to get another 20-year monopoly, a trick known as ‘evergreening’.
This was true of Glivec (imatinib), which was already on the market, but Novartis argued its new version was more easily absorbable and therefore worthy of a fresh patent. But the India courts threw out the application on the grounds the new drug is not much different from the old version, ordering Novartis to pay costs.
This means that not only can Glivec continue to be produced cheaper in India – at a cost of around £115 ($175) per month, rather than the £1,700 ($2,590) Novartis price – but it sets a legal precedent for other drugs.
Due to its patent laws, India produces the majority of generic drugs for poor countries. Activists were concerned that if Novartis won this case the evergreening of drugs would increase across the board, pushing the price of important treatment for a wide range of diseases beyond the reach of those living in poverty.
Although this battle has been won, the war is far from over. Since 2005 HIV, tuberculosis and hepatitis C drugs have started to be patented in India meaning they will not reach the millions that need them in Africa and Asia for many years.
The big drug companies argue that patents are necessary to create profits and fund research into new drugs. But this argument is less convincing when applied to the Global South as the vast majority of profits are made in rich countries, with poorer countries seen merely as good potential for the future – regardless of how many people die in the meantime.
Although there is a long way to go in the fight for affordable medicines, activists all over the world should take heart from this legal victory. Sometimes the verdicts are just. Sometimes the good guys win.
Nick Harvey is a spokesperson for Doctors of the World UK.