India’s Supreme Court Gives Temporary Victory for Key Generic Drugs

Health Care

New Orleans   Thanks to a decision by the Supreme Court in India many desperately ill leukemia patients in Africa and Asia will live, though of course many more will die.  The court ruled that that Indian pharmaceutical factories can continue making a generic version of the drug Gleevec made by Novartis.  In the developed world Novartis charges $75000 per year to patients using this highly effective regimen.  The Indian generic version costs about $2500 a year, far out of the reach of most Indians of course but affordable by many who would be die on the altar of big pharma profiteering.

Of course Novartis and other companies like it justify the prices as being necessary to pay for their research and expenses, but even to the degree some of that might be true, such an argument ignores the fundamentals of the marketplace.  Novartis can charge any price it wants as long as there is no competition for its drug and its utility, and it mostly does.  Except where the tragically ill have access to cheaper generics, 80% of which are provided by companies in India and China.  Other countries like Argentina, Brazil, and the Philippines are also challenging patents in cases worth watching.

Make no mistake though, this is a temporary victory.  Big pharma pushed India to pass a law with more patent protection in 1995.  The Indian Supreme Court ruled that Novartis had developed this drug in 1993 and though the company retooled its efforts on the drug, the patent was not fundamentally different for the adjustments made after 1995.  Other generics coming on the market since 1995 will undoubtedly have a tougher time withstanding the challenge.

These issues are not trivial.  They mean life and death to millions.  Millions, if you hear and read me clearly!

The hope is far from home unless you live in India, Argentina, or the Philippines which have passed similar restrictions on patent playing by big pharma.  Brazil and Thailand have taken the even more important step of issuing compulsory licenses for some drugs, like those effective in the AIDS epidemic, because of multilateral trade agreements that allow such actions because of overriding concerns for public health and welfare.

Public health and welfare has to trump predatory profiteering.  Such laws must expand and multiply so that companies are certainly allowed to survive, but more importantly, people are allowed to live.