Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Indian ruling against Novartis: Victory for public health

This week’s verdict by an Indian court against the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis is an important victory for global public health, according to aid agencies CARE International and Oxfam International, and the church-based advocacy network, the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance. The decision will protect India’s special role as the world’s leading provider of affordable medicines to the poor. The agencies welcome Novartis’s response that it is unlikely to appeal the ruling. Novartis had challenged a law that allows India to refuse a patent for an existing medicine when it had been modified only slightly.

Novartis and the pharmaceutical industry have been given a clear message to respect developing countries’ legal right to use the World Trade Organization TRIPS (trade-related intellectual property) safeguards to strike the right balance between protecting public health and intellectual property, the agencies said. The right of all WTO members to use the flexibilities and safeguards in the TRIPS Agreement to promote “access to medicines for all” was confirmed in 2001 (the Doha Declaration). Since then, however, rich countries and big pharmaceutical companies have sought to prevent or limit their use by developing countries, endangering the well-being of poor patients everywhere.

India – known as the ‘pharmacy of the developing world’ due to its massive generic drug production industry – supplies most of the world’s affordable generics to developing countries where patented medicines are priced out of most people’s reach. More than two-thirds of generic medicines exported from India are sold in developing countries at a fraction of the cost of patented brand medicines.

This week’s ruling comes at a time when patentability criteria are under examination in other countries as well, for instance the United States. Recognizing that patentability criteria which lead to the granting of frivolous patents can hinder innovation and access to new products rather than promote it, the US Supreme Court has recently ruled in favour of stricter criteria. – The provision in Indian law under challenge by Novartis constitutes an important public health safeguard in TRIPS. Developing countries should be commended for using this and other safeguards to promote access to affordable medicines for their populations. Recent examples include the issuance of compulsory licenses by Brazil and Thailand, and the introduction of a new, pro-health intellectual property law in the Philippines.

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