Over 350,000 people worldwide voiced concern about the impact Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis' legal challenge against the Indian government could have on access to essential medicines across the globe. Joining in to call upon the company to drop the case, they included Archbishop Desmond Tutu, members of the US Congress and European parliament, Michel Kazatchkine the new head of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and Stephen Lewis, former UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Oxfam International and other health campaigners emphasized that Novartis is challenging countries' rights to have patent laws that put the interest of people first.
"The Doha Declaration tries to find a balance between intellectual property rights and public health," said Ruth Dreifuss, who chaired the 2004-2006 WHO Commission on Intellectual Property Rights, Innovation and Public Health (CIPIH). "This balance can be achieved only if countries make use of the flexibilities contained in the TRIPS Agreement, and this is what the Indian law does. By challenging it, Novartis is sacrificing public health objectives and weakening the whole system."
Many developing countries rely on affordable medicines produced in India, and such medicines constitute over half the AIDS drugs used in the developing world. India has been able to produce affordable versions of medicines patented elsewhere because until 2005, the country did not grant pharmaceutical patents. Over 80% of the 80,000 patients in MSF's AIDS treatment programmes receive Indian generics.
"We are increasingly seeing the tools we need to treat people being taken out of our hands," said Dr. Tido von Schoen-Angerer, Director of MSF's Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines. "We are unable to afford the new medicines we need and not enough is being developed for the diseases that mainly affect people in developing countries."
Because of the global implications of Novartis¡¦ legal action in India, Swiss organizations, led by the Berne Declaration, urged the company to drop its case in an open letter to Novartis CEO Daniel Vasella sent in October 2006. The letter was endorsed by over two-dozen Swiss health NGOs including the Swiss Cancer League and Swiss AIDS Federation, as well as Swiss opinion makers, including Ruth Dreifuss.
"It is not acceptable that in order to sell its medicines at high price to a minority of wealthy patients in India and in other developing countries, Novartis is ready to worsen access to affordable essential and life-saving medicines for people in developing countries," said Julien Reinhard, Health Campaign Director at the Berne Declaration. "This behaviour is not socially responsible. It's time for Novartis to act responsibly and drop its case in India."
Novartis is challenging a specific provision in India's patent law that lays out strict criteria for granting patents. If the provision were overturned, patents would be granted far more widely in India, heavily restricting the production of affordable medicines that has become crucial to the treatment of diseases across the developing world. There are an estimated 9,000 patent applications waiting to be reviewed by Indian authorities of which most are believed to be modifications of old drugs. If India is made to change its law, many of these medicines could become patented, making them off-limits to the generic competition that has proven to bring prices down.
"Novartis claims it is simply trying to protect its intellectual property over a single drug. But the truth is this is a direct attack against India's sovereign right to protect public health," said Celine Charveriat, head of Oxfam's Make Trade Fair Campaign. "Novartis should be showing leadership in finding new solutions in a changing market place, rather than defending their vested interests and threatening the generic medicines that millions of people depend on."