Public Health Advocates and Doctors Jubilant
On Monday, The Supreme Court rejected a patent application by Novartis for a major cancer drug, which will allow poor patients continued access to many of the world’s best medicines at a cheaper rate.
Swiss Pharmaceutical Giant Novartis had made a plea for its anti-cancer drug Glivec, which is patented in forty other countries. The company had been previously denied the patent in the year 2007 by the Madras High Court, where it sued Ranbaxy and Cipla for making generic versions of Glivec. In simple terms, a patent is a set of exclusive rights granted by a government to an inventor or applicant for a limited amount of time, usually somewhere between 5-20 years.
Glivec is used in treating chronic myeloid leukaemia and a few other cancers. The difference in the cost of buying one month’s supply of Glivec is a something more than one lakh rupees, while the same version (generic version) of the drug produced by Indian Company Cipla is worth under ten thousand rupees.
As per Section 3(d) of the Indian Patent Act, companies which modify the existing combinations of a drug can apply for patents, but they must establish improved “efficacy”- the drug’s effectiveness and efficiency must be perceptible. The Supreme Court said that the drug Glivec showed no new innovation or invention. Had Novartis gotten the patent, it would have quite effectively cut off access to such an effective anti-cancer drug for people who couldn’t afford it.
With this ruling, patients won’t have to pay ridiculous amounts for already existing drugs with minor changes or modifications. It is no doubt a verdict that will save many lives. The prices of similar life-saving drugs will surely go down with time with so many generic versions of expensive drugs. India’s part as a major provider of cheap medicines will continue, which will help fight diseases like cancer, HIV/AIDS and many more with efficiency.
Novartis’ representatives’ reaction was rather odd saying that India doesn’t allow for incremental innovation and that not only Novartis, but other MNCs would plan to research in India anymore. It does seem like the company was using certain excuses and loopholes to make some more money out of a drug, whose patent had expired in the year 2008.
India, being the world’s leading exporter of generic medicine, ships 10 billion dollars’ worth of product every year, so similar cases are expected to arise in the future. But this one feels more like a win for the present, not the future. While this is a massive win for cancer patients and organisations around the country, a question does arise over the money needed for innovation of newer drugs.
With lesser payments, the funds for any research on new drugs would lessen considerably. Glivec has been one of the most vital medical discoveries in the past years and with the refusal to grant patents for critical medicines, this strategy might not support future discoveries.
In a nation with so many diseased citizens, the ruling to keep cheaper medicines available for the time being seems like a logical and sound decision, even though it may be undermining the matter of innovation. It was either to keep cheaper medicines in the market (saving lives in the present at the cost of innovation money) – or – allow the permit, see the market monopolised with steeply priced drugs, which would facilitate enough money for future innovations, but at the cost of denying the country’s poor proper life-saving treatment in the present.
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