So let’s say you are a leading multinational pharmaceutical company and you have a blockbuster cancer drug. You patent the drug, make tremendous profits, but now the clock is ticking and the patent is set to expire. What do you do?
If you are Novartis and your blockbuster cancer drug is Gleevec you are going to engage in a common practice in the pharmaceutical industry – as well as other intellectual property dependent industries – known as evergreening. A few tweaks here, a few tweaks there, and voila reset the clock. The patent is back in effect and the money can keep rolling in. Why spend money on developing new drugs when you can spend just a fraction of that cost on legal bills defending your tweaked patent? And you would have gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for those darn Indians.
India’s Supreme Court says drug maker Novartis can’t hold onto its patent for the pricey cancer drug Gleevec simply by tweaking its chemical formula. That means generic drug makers can keep making a form of the drug at a tenth of Novartis’s price. Consumer advocates call it a major advance for access to generic drugs. The drug industry says it will chill companies’ willingness to produce innovative products.
The response from the pharmaceutical industry is, not surprisingly, negative. Big Pharma’s industry group, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), issued the following statement.
PhRMA is very disappointed with the Indian Supreme Court’s decision to deny a patent on Glivec. This decision marks yet another example of the deteriorating innovation environment in India. Innovation is critical in meeting unmet needs of patients and is particularly relevant in the context of changing healthcare systems. In order to solve the real health challenges of India’s patients, it is critically important that India promote a policy environment that supports continued research and development of new medicines for the health of patients in India and worldwide. Protecting intellectual property is fundamental to the discovery of new medicines. The research-based pharmaceutical industry is committed to working closely with the Indian Government and other stakeholders to find appropriate solutions to this challenge.
That’s an interesting charge. By denying patent rights to an evergreened patent India is hurting innovation? Would not the opposite be true? That by denying patent rights to evergreened patents India, or any other authority that did so, is fostering innovation. Because in order to get new patents new research and development must be completed rather than tweaking old formulas.
Doctors Without Borders was pleased with the decision, calling it a landmark achievement for patients’ access to affordable medicines in developing countries.
“This is a huge relief for the millions of patients and doctors in developing countries who depend on affordable medicines from India, and for treatment providers like MSF,” said Dr. Unni Karunakara, MSF’s international president. “The Supreme Court’s decision now makes patents on the medicines that we desperately need less likely. This marks the strongest possible signal to Novartis and other multinational pharmaceutical companies that they should stop seeking to attack the Indian patent law.”
Aye there’s the rub. Reading Big Pharma’s statement on the matter you would probably deduce they are indeed interested in continuing the attack on Indian patent law. On the other hand this decision by the Indian Supreme Court could be the beginning of a movement against the kind of patent trolling Novartis engaged in. Should people be denied cheaper drugs because a company would rather tweak its old formula than take the often tax subsidized risk of developing new drugs?
Photo from NEUROtiker under Public Domain