Nearly a Quarter of a Million People Urge Novartis to Drop its Court Case in India

Company would effectively be shutting down the "armacy of the developing world"

As pharmaceutical company Novartis proceeds with its legal challenge against the Indian government in a court hearing in Chennai today, nearly a quarter of a million people from over 150 countries have expressed their concern about the negative impact the company's actions could have on access to medicines in developing countries. The Indian Network for People with HIV/AIDS (INP+), the People's Health Movement, the Centre for Trade and Development (Centad), together with the international medical humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), called on the company again today to immediately cease its legal action in India.

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.

"Novartis is trying to shut down the pharmacy of the developing world," said Dr. Unni Karunakara, Medical Director of MSF's Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines, at a press briefing in New Delhi. "Indian drugs account for at least a quarter of all medicines we buy, and form the backbone of our AIDS programmes, in which 80,000 people in over 30 countries receive treatment. Over 80% of the medicines we use to treat AIDS come from India. We cannot stand by and let Novartis turn off the tap."

Novartis is challenging a specific provision in India's patent law that restricts patenting of medicines to innovations only. 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.

"Here in India, the People's Health Movement fought hard to make sure our government implemented a law that put people's health before patents and profits," said Dr. Amit Sengupta "But now, Novartis is trying to force a change in our patent law, which could deprive people suffering from life-threatening diseases and conditions."

Rules of the World Trade Organization's Agreement on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) obliged India to begin reviewing pharmaceutical patents in 2005. The TRIPS agreement, however, includes pro-public health safeguards that countries can implement, and India has merely included some of these in its patent law. The Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health, signed by governments in 2001, reinforced the right of countries to use these safeguards.

"The TRIPS Agreement already makes it difficult for India to produce the affordable drugs that people need," said Gopakumar of Centad. "By challenging the pro-public health safeguards in the Indian law, Novartis is going even further and is trying to undo the Doha Declaration, restricting access to medicines."

One provision of the Indian law states that any interested party can oppose a patent before it is granted in a "pre-grant opposition" process. Such oppositions have been filed against numerous patent applications on essential medicines that do not warrant patents under Indian law.

"We have opposed patent applications for crucial AIDS drugs that we need to be able to access at affordable prices," said Elango Ramchandar, President of INP+. "Our survival depends greatly on winning these patent oppositions. We need everyone, everywhere to join us in our effort to get Novartis to back off here in India."