Big Pharma found little support from the small guy on the street as the Indian Supreme Court’s decision to reject patent claims of the drug maker Novartis for its celebrated cancer medicine Glivec reverberated across the world.
The pharma lobby railed against the decision but the overwhelming sentiment, from physicians to politicians, from academia to media, particularly in a country groaning from the high cost of health care, was that the Indian judiciary did good by workaday people — not just by the poor in the developing world but also those struggling in the developed world.
The pharma chums argument that denying patents to drug companies and eating into their profits will inhibit research investment into future wonder drugs was knocked down easily in the U.S, particular in the case of Glivec. The acclaimed drug, considered a magic bullet for leukemia, was actually developed jointly by Dr Brian Druker, director of the Oregon Health and Science University Knight Cancer Institute, in collaboration with Nicholas Lydon of Novartis. In that sense, it had some public funding.
Druker himself welcomed the Indian ruling, according to media reports, but with a caveat: the price of medications should not be restricted to the extent that it inhibits future investment in new drugs. At the same time, he has also criticized the pharma majors’ predatory pricing in the past, including in reference to Glivec.
The U.S spends more than USD 2.5 trillion, more than 15 per cent of its GDP, on health care — more than any other country in the world — with much less to show than other nations. Much of this is attributed to a broken health care system aggravated by predatory practices of the all-powerful pharmaceutical industry that spends enormous amounts on lobbying and reaps huge profits, to the dismay of even health care professionals.
The health care community also rejected Novartis contention that it was supplying Glivec free to most patients in India who were prescribed the drug, saying patients should not have to depend on the whims of the drug industry or voluntary programs. Among those welcoming the Indian decision was Doctors Without Borders (Medicines Sans Frontier), which depends largely on generics from India for worldwide operations.
“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,” Dr Karunakara added.
Even in the United States, where the pharma lobby is considered all-powerful because of its deep pockets and ability to influence legislation in Washington, the general sentiment went with the Indian decision with editorials and commentaries broadly sympathetic to the immediate needs of the poor against the arguments of the rich and powerful claiming to work in long term interests of the needy.
According to think-tank studies, the drug industry has spent more than a billion dollars since 2000 on lobbying, more than any other sector. The industry has more than 1200 registered lobbyists who strive to promote legislation friendly to the industry at the expense of patients.
Many of them sprang to Novartis’ defense on Monday, pointing to what they saw as the folly of shooting down pharma majors’ profit for short term gains for patients. Some of them tried to isolate India, which is seen as taking the lead role in the fight against branded drugs by the so-called generics.
“India is the odd man out,” fumed Mark Eliot, a spokesman for the US Chamber of Commerce’s Global Intellectual Property Center, in a radio interview, pointing out that Glivec’s patent was recognized by 38 other major countries including China and Russia.
He called the decision a “symptom of India’s cavalier attitude” towards patent rights, saying it was not the first incident of its kind and “there is pattern of behavior over many years that concerns the business community.”
The US-India Business Council was slightly more guarded in its criticism, expressing “unease” at the Supreme Court decision. “We recognize the importance of generics to the contribution of health once patents expire, but believe that in order for India to become the ‘innovation nation of the 21st century,’ it should reward and encourage innovation, including incremental innovation, by respecting the significant resources and costs associated with finding new and better cures to treat diseases,” USIBC President Ron Somers said.