There is an interesting legal case in India where Novartis, a Swiss multinational drug company, is suing the Indian government over a declined patent application.
The application is over a cancer drug called Gleevek which Novartis has already patented in 40 countries. India, which is the world’s second-largest producer of generic drugs, has a huge generic industry. (Belgium is the top producer but India produces more drugs used in developing countries such as AIDS treatments.)
As usual with the cases, the dispute is really over a minute point of law, namely a section of India’s patent legislation that says only entirely new drugs can be patented. To over-simplify, variations of old processes cannot be copyrighted.
The case has drawn worldwide attention and spurred a petition from international medical organization Doctors Without Borders for Novartis to drop the case, saying it could ultimately hinder access by the world’s poorest to essential medicines.
Novartis says that’s not the case, that Gleevek is only used by 1-2 out of 100,000 cancer patients and that the lawsuit is about clarifying India’s patent laws.
From an emotional standpoint it is difficult to argue with people who say the world’s poorest need more access to drugs. Generics have been responsible for lowering the prices of antiretroviral treatments used to treat HIV/AIDS from the tens of thousands to just hundreds of dollars per course.
On the other hand, it is also worth considering that companies like Novartis spend hundreds of millions on R&D to get these drugs to market while generic drug makers simply reverse engineer them.
The case will likely continue over the next few months and possibly years. It is one worth following as it will likely impact people around the world.