The treatment of thousands of AIDS patients will be in jeopardy if Swiss drug maker Novartis succeeds in changing India''s patent law, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has warned.
Medecins Sans Frontieres, which translates to "doctors without borders", is a global humanitarian medical aid agency that has been actively campaigning for substituting the prohibitively expensive patented drugs from multinationals with low cost generic drugs as an effective treatment for HIV / Aids.
In the past few years, several Indian pharmaceuticals manufacturers have developed low-cost generic anti-retrovirals, currently being used effectively in African and other low-income countries under WHO programmes.
For instance, antiretroviral (ARV) treatment costs in 2004 were an estimated $10,000 per patient annually. But with the availability of generic drugs produced mainly in India, the cost came down to about $70 per patient per year.
Global multinationals have long regarded this as a threat to their sales and have even questioned the efficacy and quality of low-cost Indian medicines.
With the WHO having satisfied itself on the quality and efficacy of Indian anti retrovirals, they have begun being regarded medicines of choice by medical aid agencies involved in managing HIV / Aids patients
Accordingly, India has emerged as an important source of affordable generic medicines. Moreover, to ensure the availability of low-cost medicines, it did not grant pharmaceutical patents until 2005, when the country was forced into compliance with World Trade Organisation rules on intellectual property right protection.
Novartis has now challenged a provision of India''s patent law and seeks the granting of patents far more widely, a move that would restrict the availability of affordable generic medicines, MSF said in a statement.
Novartis has argued that the principle of intellectual property protection must be safeguarded if innovation is to flourish.
MSF rebuts the claim saying spurious patents on "new" drugs of insignificant difference like a drug becoming a capsule rather than a pill and no longer requiring refrigeration, were threatening lives of patients in the developing world.
Patient groups and volunteers involved in treatment of patients, usually from among the low-income groups, want this case dropped on the grounds of low-cost treatment being denied to patients. The accuse drug makers like Novartis of trying to put profits before peoples'' lives, which would lead to grave consequences.
According to MSF spokesman James Lorenz, "If they (Novartis) hit India, it basically cuts off the lifeline for generic medicines. They''re going for the jugular."
India''s generic drugs also form the backbone of MSF''s AIDS programmes that covers the treatment of 80,000 people in 30 countries, including African countries. "We are reaching a quarter of the people who need antiretroviral treatment in sub-Saharan Africa," says Dr Ivy Mwangi of MSF.
"Rapid scale-up in treatment is only possible with the availability and affordability of generic drugs, most of which are produced in India," adds Mwangi.