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Novartis vs. India: Patents vs. the poor? | 

Flickr, Brooks Elliott

One of the biggest, thorniest dilemmas in global health is coming to a head in India.

(And the biggest player in this arena, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with a former top Novartis executive running the global health program, has no comment on it. More on that below).

At one level, it’s a narrow legal battle between the drug company Novartis and the government of India over an expensive cancer drug known in the U.S. as Gleevec, and everywhere else as Glivec.

Novartis has challenged India’s denial of patent protection for the drug and the case is now under consideration by the Indian Supreme Court. Those on either side of the argument say the case has major implications for all of global health.

Why? Because this legal battle pits one set of laudable goals, finding new and better drugs, against another equally critical aim, making sure all the people who need these drugs can afford them.

Novartis

Paul Herrling

“If a breakthrough compound like this cannot be patented in India, that has major consequences for innovation in India and elsewhere,” said Paul Herrling, head of corporate research at Novartis.

“This isn’t really about Gleevec,” added Herrling. “This is just one part of a much larger issue.”

On that last point, many global health advocacy organizations and activists would agree.

Organizations like MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières, aka Doctors without Borders) Oxfam and others focused on ensuring poor people have access to life-saving drugs see Novartis vs. India as central to a much bigger industry-wide push now taking place on a number of fronts.

Judit Rius, MSF

“This is part of a global strategy aimed at lowering the bar, of making it easier for these companies to extend their drug patent monopolies,” said Judit Rius, U.S. manager of MSF’s Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines.

A Novartis win in Indian court would seriously undermine the generic drug industry, Rius said, reducing the supply of cheap drugs that make a life-and-death difference in poor countries.

MSF, Oxfam and other health advocacy organizations have been fighting Novartis on this case for years. It has dragged on within the India court system since 2006, getting filed, denied and then re-filed, with advocates for the drug company arguing that India is improperly protecting its burgeoning generic drug industry while many public health advocates argue Novartis is profit-seeking at the expense of the poor.

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