"The case in India is not about patient access," maintains Ranjit Shahani, vice-chairman of Novartis India. "Lost in this
debate is that patents help patients by stimulating the long-term research and development efforts needed to develop breakthrough
therapies like 'Gleevec.' Furthermore, India is seeking to expand its research-based pharmaceutical industry. This can only
grow if patents are respected, allowing for collaborations with international companies and encouraging R&D investments."
Patent lawyers in Mumbai point out that the developments around "Tarceva" are assuming similar contours as Novartis' "Gleevec"
case, with a steep price difference between "Gleevec" and its generic versions ($2600 versus $200).
Although there are conflicting statistics on the number of patients suffering from chronic myeloid leukemia in India, who
could benefit from "Gleevec" or its generic, approximately 9000 patients currently get free treatment under a program Novartis
runs with the Max Foundation. But critics point out that global drug companies would rather give drugs away than reduce prices
in one country, in order to protect rates in developed markets.
After it lost out on the patent for "Gleevec," Novartis decided to abandon its plan to set up a research and development center
in Hyderabad. Novartis CEO Daniel Vasella has said that he would move millions of dollars in planned investments from India
to other locations, primarily China. Indian companies and medical experts though are unfazed.
Comments D. G. Shah, secretary-general of the Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance (IPA), "Patent wrangles have ensured more bargaining
power for developing countries. Multinational drug companies have been compelled to cut prices, in some cases, by dramatic
Adds Chan Park, senior technical and policy advisor at the Lawyers' Collective HIV/AIDS Unit, a New Delhi-based group that
works to enhance access to treatment, "We know of no more effective means of reducing prices for drugs than robust generic
"Patent fights will encourage domestic pharmaceutical companies to strive for real innovation and not run after trivial changes,
as has happened in the USA," declares IPA's Shah. "Ever-greening is famous in the West, which also has regimes supporting
minor changes. The liberal patenting regime in the USA permits any trivial change to be patented, whereas the Indian law permits
[this] only where there is incremental innovation. This is good for the progress of science and ensures balance between the
interests of the consumer and the innovator."
A. Nair is a freelance writer based in Mumbai.