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Novartis Patent Case Threatens Cheap Indian Generic Medicines

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A landmark case is being heard currently in the Supreme Court of India which could threaten the country’s role as a provider of cheap generic drugs to third world countries. Swiss pharma company Novartis AG wants a patent for its modifications to the cancer drug Gleevec. But, activists say if the company wins, it could enthuse other firms to patent generic medicines and affect India’s $20 billion pharma industry. India also sells generic drugs far more cheaply to needy countries compared to rates charged for brand name drugs by Western companies.

Evergreening Poses Dangers
Western pharma companies typically indulge in the practice of “evergreening” which is common in the US and Europe. They add minor modifications to existing drug treatments and seek fresh extensions or patents for these drugs. This way, Western pharma companies can continue to rake in the moolah long after the original patent expires. These companies say they need to recover the high costs of research and development spent to discover a drug.

India Rejects Evergreening
However, Indian courts have ignored the practice of evergreening and rejected new patents for older drugs which treat malaria, tuberculosis, AIDS, cancer etc. Novartis says it has revamped Gleevec and not merely tweaked it. Gleevec or Glivec as sold in the US, is a blockbuster drug that treats leukemia and other cancers.

Novartis’ Argument
Novartis says a better knowledge of drug innovation is required to understand how it improves drug efficacy. This case thus might create a legal precedent. Novartis says drug companies deserve financial incentives to keep developing new drugs.

Patent vs Generics
But, Indian activists say Novartis’ stance threatens India’s efforts to prevent the abuse of patents. Western companies are frustrated by India’s generic drug industry which churns out low-cost versions that are popular in third-world nations. EU officials want stricter patent provisions. But, Indian activists say this would destroy the generic drug industry.

Generics in India
India makes 20% of the world’s generic drugs and exports about 50% of its output. More than 800 million Indians live in poverty and medical insurance is still at a nascent stage in the country. Activists argue these are the reasons why India needs strict limits on patents. Many medical charities from all over the world buy a considerable percentage of their generic drugs from India to benefit poor patients worldwide.

Patented Drugs are Much More Expensive
Patented and branded drugs can be up to 40 times more expensive than generics. For example, the branded version of Gleevec costs about $175 in India for a month’s treatment, while Novartis’ branded version costs $2,600. This wide gap in prices can literally be the difference between life and death, say activists.

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