In 2006, the Basel-based Swiss pharma giant Novartis AG filed a court case against India. If Novartis had won the case, it would have meant that millions of people around the world would not have been able to afford life-saving drugs. To find out more, take a look at this link. The court case itself was related to a technical issue about a patent for its drug Glivec/Gleevec that is used to treat leukaemia (blood cancer). Take a look at this link for the details of the case. But the legal challenge by Novartis was not just a mere technical issue. It had much wider ramifications for the whole planet. Had the ruling gone in favour of the Swiss firm, it would have sounded the death knell for public health in many countries around the world.
Fortunately, Novartis lost the case. It might have appealed against the decision of the Madras High Court in the Supreme Court of India. According to Oxfam, “But half a million people around the world rallied behind India and supported her rights to produce affordable medicines, not just for her own citizens but for those in other countries as well. This massive groundswell of support and attention raised this from a technical issue, to one of global and moral significance.” (Emphasis added) Novartis was forced to drop its plan to file an appeal against the ruling due to the immense public support around the world for India.
India stopped issuing patents for drugs in 1970. From then on, it issued patents only for the processes used in the manufacture of drugs. To put it in simple terms, a company could only patent the method of manufacturing a drug and not the drug itself. This led to different companies manufacturing the same drug using slightly different processes. The resulting competition brought down the prices of life saving drugs and brought them within the reach of millions of sick people in India and other countries. India became a producer of high quality generic drugs that were used to treat people suffering from life threatening diseases like cancer, AIDS, diabetes and other diseases at a small fraction of the cost of patented drugs that were sold in other countries. India became the pharmacy of the developing world. Without the low cost but high quality generic drugs that were manufactured by Indian pharmaceutical companies, the fate of tens of thousands of Earthlings around the world would have been sealed much earlier.
To give some examples, I shall take a few lines from Sarah Hiddleston‘s article in ‘The Frontline’, the link to which has been provided in the first paragraph of this post. Sarah wrote, “Without cheaper alternatives from India, there would be nowhere else to go to buy medicines. According to a study conducted by Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF/Doctors Without Borders), 67 per cent of the medicines produced in India are exported to developing countries; approximately 50 per cent of the medicines distributed by the United Nations Children’s Fund in developing countries come from India; in Zimbabwe, 75 per cent of the tenders for medicines for all public sector health facilities come from Indian manufacturers; the state procurement agency of Lesotho, the National Drug Supply Organisation, states that it buys nearly 95 per cent of all antiretrovirals (ARVs) from India. Even countries that manufacture their own medicines rely on imports of active pharmaceutical ingredients from India.”
Such has been the impact of India’s unique process patent law.
(To be continued)