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Legal Wrangle Puts India's Generic Drugs at Risk
New Scientist
February 28, 2007
by Roxanne Khamsi


Tens of thousands of people being treated for AIDS will suffer if Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis succeeds in changing India's patent law, the humanitarian agency Medecins Sans Frontieres warned on Monday.

Novartis is challenging a specific provision of India's patent law that, if overturned, would see patents being granted far more widely, heavily restricting the availability of affordable generic medicines, MSF says.

"If they hit India it basically cuts off the lifeline for generic medicines. They're going for the jugular," MSF spokesman James Lorenz added.

India's generic drugs form the backbone of MSF's AIDS programmes, in which 80,000 people in 30 countries receive treatment.

"We are reaching a quarter of the people who need antiretroviral treatment in sub-Saharan Africa," says Ivy Mwangi, an MSF doctor. "Rapid scale-up in treatment is only possible with the availability and affordability of generic drugs, most of which are produced in India."

Profit over life

In 2000, antiretroviral (ARV) treatment cost was estimated at $10,000 per patient annually. But the availability of generic drugs produced mainly in India, allowed costs to plummet to about $70 per patient per year, Mwangi adds.

India has long been an important source of affordable generic medicines as it did not grant pharmaceutical patents until 2005, when it was forced to comply with World Trade Organization rules on intellectual property.

"If Novartis gets through with its case our lives are at risk," Monique Wanjala, a woman who has been living with HIV for 13 years, told a news conference in Nairobi. "We want this case dropped," she said. "If we die because affordable generic drugs aren't available, where will they sell the drug? If profits are going to be put before peoples' lives then we have a serious problem."

Novartis argues that the principle of intellectual property protection must be safeguarded if innovation is to flourish.

MSF says spurious patents on "new" drugs of insignificant difference – like a drug becoming a capsule rather than a pill and no longer requiring refrigeration – are threatening lives in the developing world.

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