Novartis lawsuit threatens access to medicines for millions

“This is a direct attack against India’s sovereign right to protect public health”
Celine Charveriat
Published: 2 February 2007

Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis must drop its controversial court case against India which begins in Chennai today (Jan 29th), says international agency Oxfam.

Novartis has launched two suits against India after the country refused to grant a patent for Glivec, an anti-cancer medicine. Novartis is challenging not just the Glivec decision, but also a section of India’s patent law designed to promote cheaper generic medicines for poor patients who cannot afford patented medicines.

The law allows India to refuse a patent for an existing medicine that has been slightly modified. In countries such as the US, companies have modified medicines then re-patented them to extend their monopoly and keep generic competition off the market. India’s law ensures that this practice – called “ever-greening” – would not block access to affordable generics. Most Indians pay for medicines out-of-pocket, therefore cheaper generic medicines are a lifeline.

Oxfam says that India’s law reflects an important public health safeguard that was agreed at the World Trade Organization. No country has challenged the legality of India’s law at the WTO.

Indian generic medicines are also critical to public health in other developing countries. India is the world’s biggest producer and exporter of generic medicines to developing countries, particularly in Africa, reaching millions of people. More than half the medicines now being used for AIDS treatment in developing countries come from India. If Novartis wins its case, access to vital affordable medicines for AIDS and other diseases will be jeopardized.

“Novartis claims it is simply trying to protect its intellectual property over a single drug. But the truth is this is a direct attack against India’s sovereign right to protect public health,” said Oxfam’s Make Trade Fair head Celine Charveriat.

The Glivec case alone is vital to the thousands of cancer patients in India who may be unable to get affordable generic versions of the medicine in the future. Branded Glivec sells for $27,000 per patient per year in India, but the generic version sells for $2,000 per patient per year.

Novartis says that it gives Glivec for free to poor patients, but Oxfam says this is not a sustainable way of providing medicines. “Novartis cannot guarantee to provide Glivec for free for life to the 24,000 new leukemia patients diagnosed in India each year. Corporate philanthropy has its place, but generic competition is the proven way of keeping drug prices affordable,” said Charveriat.

“Glivec aside, the global ramifications of the case against India’s patent law could stain Novartis’ reputation forever,” Charveriat said. “There are an estimated 9,000 patent applications waiting to be reviewed by Indian authorities of which roughly 7,000 are believed to be modifications of old drugs. If India is made to change its law, many of these medicines might become patented, and therefore off-limits to cheap generic competition.”

The Novartis challenge comes at a time when the global pharmaceutical industry as a whole is facing difficulties. Patents on many blockbuster drugs are beginning to expire and not enough new medicines are in the development pipeline. Therefore companies are seeking to extend and protect their monopolies around the world in order to curb generic competition and maximize their profits on existing drugs. “Novartis should be showing leadership in finding new solutions in a changing market place, rather than defending their vested interests and threatening the generic medicines that millions of people depend on,” Charveriat said.

Contact Information

For more information, please contact:
Matt Grainger, Oxfam Press Officer, +44-1865-339128