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.


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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Fighting famine with peanut paste freed from patent protection | 

It’s called Plumpy’nut, a nutritionally fortified peanut-based food paste that’s one of the primary weapons in the battle against starvation in the Horn of Africa.

And it well may be in wider use in the famine in East Africa because of some folks who months earlier filed a lawsuit challenging a patent on Plumpy’nut.

Here’s an NBC video report about a non-profit Rhode Island manufacturer of Plumpy’Nut (preceded by an ad for Nutri-Grain) and a famine refugee camp in Dadaab Kenya featuring children treated for malnutrition:

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There have been a number of similar stories recently, on CNN, in Fast Company and other media. Most follow a similar story line, describing this amazingly cheap, simple and powerful nutritional product and its use to fight hunger and malnutrition around the world.

What gets little mention in most of these stories is that Plumpy’nut was invented and patented by a French company, Nutriset, many years ago. And when these other companies, like the one profiled by NBC, wanted to get in on the action of producing this humanitarian foodstuff a patent protection legal battle ensued.

Here’s a BBC story on the legal battle last year and another one by the UN’s news service IRIN describing the pressure on Nutriset to allow others to produce Plumpy’nut.

Nutriset eventually bowed to pressure and has allowed other organizations to produce Plumpy’nut under a Patents Usage Agreement.


Microsoft wants to engineer bugs to become disease fighting nanobots | 

Flickr, by midorisyu

Todd Bishop at TechFlash has discovered that Microsoft is into global health, in a weird way.

As Todd reports, Microsoft has applied for a patent for “Adapting Parasites to Combat Disease.”

The patent application has this goofy stickman drawing (below) that, so far as I can tell, doesn’t really explain exactly what the idea is here.

But the gist of it appears to be that scientists would engineer a parasite to make it into a programmable nanobot that could be used to combat disease in the human body. Todd quotes from the application:

By modifying or making a parasitic organism that can be programmatically controlled by a stimulus external to the altered parasitic organism, the parasitic organism can be a powerful tool in delivering therapeutic compounds. …

Okay then. Hope it works better than Windows movie maker. Here’s the drawing that went with the patent application: