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India Patent Case Threatens Cheap Drug Supply: Doctors Without Borders

September 6, 2011

Doctors Without Borders (DWB) warned Monday that a challenge to India's patent law could interrupt the global supply of low-cost generic drugs.


Novartis is contesting the Indian patent office's rejection of an application for an updated version of its leukemia drug Glivec. Indian law stipulates that patents cannot be issued for older drugs unless changes make them significantly more therapeutically effective. DWB called the updated version of Glivec a "minor modification." India's Supreme Court on Tuesday will hear an appeal by Novartis on Glivec's status.

"If the patent law challenge is successful, it would have a devastating impact on access to affordable medicines across the developing world," said Leena Menghaney, DWB's India representative.

Thanks to its thriving generic drugs industry, India is known as the "pharmacy to the developing world." Inexpensive medicines are crucial for patients in poor countries, DWB said. Generics from India have pushed down prices for older AIDS drugs by 99 percent, it noted.

Eighty percent of the generic AIDS drugs DWB uses to treat 170,000 patients in 19 nations come from India. "We couldn't afford to treat them all without these generic drugs," said Joanna Keenan, a spokesperson for the medical charity.

If the court accepts Novartis' arguments, the ruling could set a precedent and allow drugmakers to acquire patents on modified versions of existing drugs -- extending exclusive patent rights, DWB said. "The outcome of this case is literally a matter of life and death for people," said Loon Gangte, an Indian HIV/AIDS advocate.

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