Millennium Post

Deterrent for big pharma scrambles

In a landmark judgement, the Supreme Court of India has rejected the petition of the Swiss-origin multinational pharmaceutical company Novartis AG for a patent for Glivec, an old-wine-in-new-bottle sort of a rehashed drug that is used to treat chronic myeloid leukemia (CML). This is indeed a tremendous victory for the Indian people, our rickety health care system as well as the multitudes of poor all over the developing and under-developed world, to which Indian manufacturers export much cheaper generic drugs loosely modeled on the over-priced high-end patented medicines produced by massive transnational pharmaceutical companies such as Novartis. The Supreme Court decision marks the culmination of a protracted seven-year-long battle between Novartis and the Indian authorities, as the former, in its effort to ensure the continuance of the deplorable but common practice of ‘ever-greening’ of patents, by making cosmetic changes to the drug molecule in the name of improving efficacy and innovation, sought to seek patent for Glivec (known as Gleevec in Europe) in 2007 as the prescription drug for CML. However, as the battle over the interpretation of Section 3(d) of the Indian Patents Act carried on between the face of big pharma at its worst and the Indian decision makers, fate of huge swathes of underprivileged people was put on a delicate balance. With the life-saving drug costing $2,600 per month pay-for-service in the global health market, needless to say that it was absolutely inaccessible to a huge demographic chunk, both in India as well as in parts of the developing world, such as Asia, Africa, Latin America and even amongst the poorer sections in the West. In stark contrast, the locally manufactured generic version of the CML drug was available for $175 approximately, almost 300 per cent less than the inflated market price, thus acting as a boon for the Indian poor and middle-income groups.

While Novartis claims that it needs to protect patent rights to the formula of this life-saving drug, what it actually wants to do is create a ‘patent cluster’ around all the barely different versions of the drug by tweaking the molecule without changing the basic template, thus creating a golden goose of an infinite and vicious circle of profiteering. However, the multiple rejections that it has had to face in India sound the onset of a resurgent and indigenous health sector in India, which had been dealt a near-fatal blow by the Western pharmaceutical companies, as they gobbled up Indian drug manufacturers and even tried to patent many of the indigenous herbs and medicinal plants to serve their ends. By rejecting the Novartis plea at all levels, from Madras High Court (in 2007), to the Intellectual Property Appellate Board (2009) and now the Supreme Court, India has spoken in one voice and has stood up boldly against the scramble and gamble for global healthcare sector, in which India is crucially positioned both as a large supplier of cheap, generic remedies as well as an enormous market for life-saving drugs and other medicinal cures.
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