Consumer advocates hail, US trade lobby decries Novartis verdict

Washington, April 3: The Indian Supreme Court’s decision to reject Swiss drug maker Novartis’ patent claim for its pricey cancer drug Gleevec has been hailed by consumer advocates, but decried by the powerful drug industry lobby.

Dr. Jennifer Cohn of Doctors Without Borders called it “an incredibly important decision for us” as the ruling assures that groups like hers can afford to buy generic medications for its far-flung patients around the world.

“Over 80 percent of these generic medications actually come from India. So India has been called the pharmacy to the developing world,” she told National Public Radio (NPR) Tuesday.

“We don’t want access to medications to be dependent on the drug companies’ whim or voluntary programme,” Cohn said. “What does work on the long term to bring down prices and ensure sustainable access to medicines is generic competition.”

Celebrated attorney Anand Grover, who argued the case on behalf of Indian cancer patients, too called the decision “very important for India and for developing countries.”

The victory means that India’s generic drug makers can continue to sell the leukaemia drug Gleevec at less than a tenth of the sticker price of $2,000 a month, NPR said.

Grover said companies don’t have enough incentives to invest in truly new kinds of drugs when they can make so much by tweaking old ones. “They can just tweak. They can just tweak and make as much money.”

However, Mark Elliot, head of the Global Intellectual Property Centre of the US Chamber of Commerce, told NPR: “This is not the first incident of this kind in India. There’s a pattern of behaviour over many years that is of concern to the business community.”

“This decision is significant because this patent for the drug Gleevec is recognized right around the world except for India. It’s recognized in both China and Russia and 38 major countries specifically. And India in this case is the odd man out,” he said.

The US-India Business Council comprising nearly 400 of America’s and India’s top companies seeking stronger US-India commercial relationship, also expressed its “unease” over the Supreme Court ruling.

The decision, it said, will impact innovation and investment in India at a time when foreign direct investment is most needed.

“Innovation requires the reward and protection of intellectual property,” said USIBC President Ron Somers.

“Creating and maintaining an environment that inspires and enables innovation,” he said, “is crucial if India is to attract investment in this or other highly complex sectors.”

Somers said USIBC recognized “the importance of generics to the contribution of health once patents expire.” But it also believed “that in order for India to become the ‘innovation nation of the 21st century,’ it should reward and encourage innovation.”

(Arun Kumar can be contacted at arun.kumar@ians.in)

IANS