New Internationalist

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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  1. #1 Bob Boxall 08 Apr 13

    World lawmakers are you heeding the leadership here? Stop catering to Big Pharma and do your job to serve the people. This is not only a landmark legal decision but more importantly the right thing to do.

  2. #2 Josef 09 Apr 13

    i like your article, and to see that ’it’s refreshing to come across a piece of good news that will affect needy people all over the globe,’ thanks for sharing

  3. #3 ludwig pesch 09 Apr 13

    Thanks for this informative piece from an Indian perspective! I read some of the European editorials - not surprisingly quite a mixed bag of sentiments while often enough marked by the nuances such an issue deserves.
    A question I often ask myself is: how can the same multinationals earn hefty profits both, with the dangerous but cheap/convenient substances found in many households (presumably often a cause of cancer in their own right), and with the expensive medicines to tackle the effects?
    How cynical can a commercial agenda become?
    Perhaps I am ideologically misguided here, simply failing to comprehend that these companies share a legitimate self-interest with their customers; engineers that can make and break health provided there's sufficient cash going around.
    Having lived in India I know that both stores and households stock pesticides banned in Europe for their potentially harmful/lethal side-effects; and that many dealers/users couldn't even read, let alone understand the instructions and warnings (so conveniently printed in tiny letters). Such chemicals are popular also with illiterate people don't they instantly kill cockroaches, mosquitoes, rats etc.?
    What happens with the residues, how do people protect their drinking water and food from contamination?
    By contrast, in Amsterdam drugstore staff is required to question me whether I have understood the side effects before selling me a packet of aspirin or even a lozenges!
    To me, these extremes form Brave New Worlds, not One World, each with a code of ethics for all, only united by the insatiable hunger for profits of multinationals.

  4. #4 TT 11 Apr 13

    Another interesting article, on a site dealing with drugs and patents...

  5. #5 Christiane Fischer 15 Jun 13

    According to the TRIPS minimum standard, WTO members have to grant patents to products
    1. that are new
    2. industrially applicable
    3. involve an inventive step.

    TRIPS does not define, what countries need to accept as innovative (enough) to grant a patent. The Indian patent law (section 3d) excludes small changes on existing products (marginal innovations) such as Imatineb as not innovative enough to qualify for a patent. Good for the patients, the price difference between the brand and the generic is a question of life and death in countries, therefore a moral question!

    Even countries like Germany (with an insurance coverage of close to 100%) could profit from a patent law, which excludes marginal innovations from patentability. Glivec® in Germany is available for 3407,76 € per months, paid by the insurance, therefore in the end by all.
    Globally patents on marginal products like Glivec (and many Aids drugs) guarantee a large profit to companies. At the same time pharmaceutical industry hardely produces products with an therpuetic advance, since 1974 only 10% of the about 1600 new chemical entities about 2800 new drugs), which entered the global market had an therpeutic advance, less that 1% were usable for neglected diseases including TB and malaria. However if these marginal innovative products would not qualify for patents anywhere in the world, the industry would be forced to to R&D for real (radical) innovative products, hopefully for neglected diseases.
    Dr. Christiane Fischer, MPH BUKO Pharma-Kampagne

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

Read more by Mari Marcel Thekaekara

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