The international medical humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has called upon the shareholders of Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis to urge the company to drop its ongoing court case against the Indian government as the case could have a severe impact on access to affordable medicines for people across the developing world.
The MSF’s clarion call in this regard comes in the wake of the shareholders meet of Novartis on February 23 in Basel, Switzerland.
In the Supreme Court of India, Novartis is challenging Section 3(d) of India’s Patents Act which prohibits ‘evergreening’ – the practice of multinational pharmaceutical companies to extend their patent terms by making small, trivial changes to existing medicines and thereby preventing access to generic affordable drugs. Under Section 3(d), patents will not be granted for new uses or new forms of existing medicines. However, some new forms of existing medicines may get patents if the company can demonstrate a significant increase in efficacy.
“Shareholders at this meeting need to know what the stakes are on this case and what the consequences will be,” said Dr Unni Karunakara, MSF’s international president. “We are asking Novartis once and for all to stop this legal battle in India that is a direct attack on the pharmacy of the developing world. We will not stand by silently and watch our source of affordable medicines dry up in the future – we rely on these drugs to do our work in more than 60 countries today.”
Novartis first sued the Indian government in 2006, after a patent the company was seeking for the cancer drug imatinib mesylate was rejected. India grants product patents in line with international trade rules since 2005, but in the interest of public health, India’s law is strict about what does and does not deserve a patent. Patents are not granted on modifications of drugs that already exist. Because imatinib mesylate was the salt form of imatinib, the original invention behind the cancer drug, it was not granted a patent.
Since then, Novartis has been attacking this part of India’s patents law – called Section 3(d) – in the courts. After losing a legal battle to have Section 3(d) removed from India’s patent law in 2007, the company is now trying a new legal tactic to weaken it.
MSF is concerned over the fact that a Novartis win will lead to Indian patent offices granting patents on modifications to drugs which would otherwise remain off-patent in India. This would take the substance out of a public health provision which has already demonstrated its importance in securing affordable access to key HIV, TB and cancer medicines.
MSF has launched a Stop Novartis social media campaign to draw attention to the implications of the case and to call on the company to back down. Alongside other civil society organizations including Act Up, Oxfam and the Berne Declaration, MSF has protested against the company’s actions outside the shareholder meeting in Basel and outside of Novartis headquarters in New York.
“The implications of this case reach far beyond India and far beyond this particular cancer drug,” said Leena Menghaney, manager for MSF’s Access Campaign in India. “Novartis shareholders need to question the company’s attempt to break a system on which millions of people in developing countries rely on for affordable treatment. We urge Novartis investors to tell the company to drop the case.”
Ramesh Shankar, Mumbai