Indian patent law threatens low-cost drugs

NEW DELHI — India, which is part of the World Trade Organization, may have to change its patent laws. The government is considering amending the Indian Patent Act of 1970, which would introduce patent protection for big corporations and pharmaceutical products.

Currently, the Indian Patent Act covers only the process to make medicines, not the products themselves. Anyone can produce and sell generic drugs as long as they use different processes for its production. If this third amendment passes, it will prevent the manufacturing, selling, distributing or importing medicines without (costly) authorization.

This law has kept medicine prices amongst the lowest in the world. Some of the most common illnesses are diabetes, coronary heart disease, depression, cancer, HIV/AIDS, arthritis, respiratory and urinary tract infections. Medicines for these illnesses are comparatively cheap and affordable. But with a product patent, patent owners will be able to monopolize the market and, in the absence of local competition, they can charge exorbitant prices.

For example, a drug used for Chronic Myeloid Leukemia named Gleevec has been available in generic form for 9,000 rupees a month. If the patent act is amended, the exclusive marketing right for Gleevec will go to the multinational corporation Novartis AG. Then the price will jump to 120,000 rupees a month.

Indian pharmaceutical firms produce cheap generic drugs for HIV/AIDS victims across the world. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), the Nobel-Prize-winning medical organization, said more than a third of the antiretroviral (ARV) AIDS drugs it uses comes from India. Indian ARV makers have been instrumental in lowering the prices from $10,500 per month to just $350 per year. Any patent measures taken by India will have consequences across the world, said MSF Director Ellen Hoen.

Nongovernmental organizations, health workers and political parties from China, South Korea, Bangladesh, Indonesia, France, Malaysia, Laos, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea appealed to the Indian government to keep the current law. Left Indian political parties are actively campaigning on this issue.

M.K.N. Moorthy is the publisher of a progressive Malayalam language publication in Kerala, India.