Petition aims to maintain cheap drugs

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(This article appeared on Nature’s news site on January 15, 2007.)

Court case in India threatens to derail generic medicines.

Free for all? Patent laws can make or break generic drug production.

The international humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF) is ramping up their fight against the Swiss drug giant Novartis, urging the company to drop a lawsuit that could make it much more difficult for Indian companies to produce cheap, generic drugs.

With the case expected to come up for hearing on 29 January, MSF is pumping up efforts to collect signatures on a petition against the suit. Already they have tens of thousands of names, but are aiming to get many more. A win for the pharmaceutical company, they say, would deprive the world’s poorest people of affordable medicines.

Indian companies are known for making low-cost copies of expensive medicines, particularly AIDS drugs. More than half of the antiretroviral drugs used in developing countries, and about 80% of those provided by MSF, are made by Indian companies. “India is the pharmacy for the developing world,” says Ellen ‘t Hoen, director of policy advocacy for MSF’s Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines. “We largely depend on India.”

India’s laws currently don’t allow drug companies to patent products that are seen to be simply new derivatives or combinations of existing drugs. This frees up local companies to do a booming trade in inexpensive copies of the non-patented formulations.

In January 2006, Novartis was denied a patent by a court in the southern Indian city of Chennai for their cancer drug Glivec, after the drug was deemed a variation of a previously patented substance.

But Novartis disagrees with the decision. In May, the company filed petitions against the Indian government and the Indian Patent Office, claiming that the ruling violates World Trade Organization rules on patents.

MSF and other activist groups fear that if Novartis wins, an increase in patented drugs in India will mean fewer generics for all.

All for one

Other companies have remained on the sidelines of this court case, but a victory for Novartis would benefit all multinational companies, says ‘t Hoen. “I think they’re all watching because none of them are happy with that part of the law,” she says.

So far, at least, Novartis is standing firm. “We don’t agree with the petition,” says Paul Herrling, head of corporate research for Novartis. “It’s our democratic right to appeal to a court.”

The last time MSF took on such a high-profile fight was in 2001, in response to 39 companies taking the South African government to court to prevent the country from importing cheap AIDS drugs. “This looks very similar,” says ‘t Hoen.

In that case, MSF collected nearly 300,000 signatures from more than 130 countries. Following public outcry, the companies eventually backed down and dropped their court case.

But there have been other instances when companies
 have won, notes James Love, director of the Consumer
 Project on Technology in Washington DC. “Sometimes
 protest works, sometimes it doesn’t,” Love says. “But there’s only so much heat the companies can take.”

PDF: Petition aims to maintain cheap drugs

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