Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Australia - Future of cheap, generic drugs in jeopardy
India's Supreme Court is hearing arguments in a landmark case that could have a big impact on healthcare in the developing world.
India's generic drug manufacturers have become a global supplier of cheap medicines. They're protected by laws that prevent monopoly pricing and frivolous patent applications.
However Swiss-based company Novartis is now challenging the laws as it fights for a new patent on one of its drugs.
Healthcare providers says that a win for Novartis will cripple their ability to provide essential medicines and treatment to the poor.
Correspondent: Richard Lindell
Speakers: Pavan Duggal, supreme court lawyer; Ranjit Shahani, Novartis India president; Leena Menghaney, Medecins Sans Frontieres
RICHARD LINDELL: India is known as the pharmacy of the poor and with good reason. Globally it's the third largest producer of drugs by volume and exports generic drugs to the developing world at between 3 and 20 per cent of the cost of brand names.
The pharmaceutical industry has been able to do this because of unique laws that restrict monopoly pricing and evergreening by multinationals.
Pavan Duggal is a supreme court lawyer.
PAVAN DUGGAL: When you look at the statement of objectives of the new amendments to the patents law, the idea of the legislation is very clear - it wants to prevent evergreening, evergreening being a phenomenon where big pharmaceuticals often would seek patents on smaller frivolous changes to known substances so as to further regain and shall I say, were to extend the particular monopolies.
RICHARD LINDELL: But these laws are now being challenged in the supreme court. The Swiss-based firm Novartis is suing the Indian government for denying a patent on an updated version of its 11-year-old anti-cancer drug gleevec.
Novartis India president Ranjit Shahani told French television the new form of the drug is substantially different.
RANJIT SHAHANI: Without patents there will be no innovation in medicines, without that there will be no generics later on in any case. So there's a direct correlation between all of this, but we want clarity.
RICHARD LINDELL: But opponents argue the changes are minor and aim to protect the company's monopoly.
Supreme court lawyer Pavan Duggal says Novartis is asking the court to weaken patent law by accepting a lower threshold for innovations, with implications well beyond gleevec.
PAVAN DUGGAL: There is no two doubts in my mind that the impact of this case is not only going to be landmark but also historic. This case and its principles enunciated by the supreme court will not just impact the anti-cancer drug segment, but it's to impact the complete generic medication pharmaceutical industry in the country.
RICHARD LINDELL: Medecins Sans Frontieres has been leading a global campaign demanding Novartis drops the case.
Leena Menghaney says MSF relies heavily on generic drugs produced in India and is concerned about the impact of the supreme court case on their ability to treat a range of illnesses.
LEENA MENGHANEY: Generics are going to Latin America, the generics are going to Africa, the generics are going to central Asia, Thailand and of course in India itself.
In HIV, you can count millions of people being affected in itself and we haven't even counted for example tuberculosis or cancer and other diseases. So we are convinced that for HIV treatment this will be a disaster.
For MSF, a few doctors were extremely challenging and came forward to treat AIDS when all we could offer was palliative care. For MSF doctors they do not want to go back to that era.
RICHARD LINDELL: The stakes are just as high for the Indian government and the future of its recently announced billion dollar drugs program for the poor - a policy that depends on generics as a cheap and reliable source of essential medicines.