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India celebrates Novartis ruling


The Indian legal system mostly makes the people that live here wring our hands in desperate frustration, because it is so mired in red tape and implacable bureaucracy. Yet, with all its faults, our Supreme Court has often made us proud. In a landmark judgement on 1 April 2013, the Indian Supreme Court refused a demand from Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis for an extension on a patent which is due to expire.

Novartis patented anti-cancer drug Imatineb (also sold as Gleevec and Glivec), in the US in 1993. The Indian Supreme Court declared Novartis’ new drug, rather old drug with a new name, was not innovative and useful enough to merit a separate, new patent in India. Apparently this is a game pharmaceutical companies routinely play, to get new patents on old products to continue profiteering at the expense of consumers all over the globe.

The court’s decision has been hailed by the sections of the medical fraternity not in cahoots with the big pharmaceutical companies. Because by allowing Novartis to prolong and renew its patent, cancer patients across the globe would be forced to pay around Rs.1 lakh per month instead of one tenth of that for a generic version, for another twenty years.

‘The ruling will save a lot of lives across the developing world,’ said aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). Leena Menghaney, a lawyer for MSF described the judgement as a ‘big relief’ and added: ‘The ruling doesn’t mean no patents will be granted in India, but the abusive practice of seeking many patents for one drug will be curbed.’

I wrote about the impact of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (World Trade Organization) in my 1990 New Internationalist column. It made for a boring, ponderous, practically unreadable column. But after reading reams of largely unintelligible difficult documents, I felt it was imperative to try to decipher some of it, so that more people, ordinary people, not merely corporate business types and bureaucrats, realized how new patent laws could affect their medical bills.

Indian newspapers have had entire pages dedicated to the Supreme Court judgement. Spokespeople for Novartis and the pro-Novartis lobby, waxed eloquent about the unfairness of the judgement, how it would stifle innovation, research and future technology. They warned that ‘India’s growing non-recognition of intellectual property rights’ had set a bad precedent and would have big pharmaceutical companies backing away from us in horror. Novartis have a hard time getting the public on their side; their outgoing CEO was paid $78 million according to newspaper reports, so they don’t come out as poor, badly-done-by victims.

The Indian pharmaceutical companies are not known for their charitable instincts, indeed their profits continue to soar each year. Yet they have managed to sell, at a profit, desperately needed drugs to Africa, importantly at a fraction of the cost that major western Big Pharma companies have supplied at exorbitant prices for decades. Glivec, which is used to treat chronic myeloid leukaemia and other cancers, costs about $2,600 a month. The generic equivalent is currently available in India for just $175.

At a time when so much seems so wrong in our world, it’s refreshing to come across a piece of good news that will affect needy people all over the globe. This was a legal victory. It didn’t preach, it didn’t say it was batting for the poor. The verdict was clearly a just, legal ruling. People, especially health care professionals, were dancing outside the New Delhi Supreme Court. In a country where people are still seething with rage, over rape, corruption and umpteen other nasty issues, it’s wonderful when there’s a good and great verdict to celebrate. And that there’s something wonderful to dance about.

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