Activists battle Novartis over cancer drug

Mary-Jane Matsolo
Protestors demand that Novartis drops its case agains the Indian government. Photo by Mary-Jane Matsolo.
Mary-Jane Matsolo

South African activists are campaigning to get a multinational pharmaceutical company, Novartis, to drop a court case against the Indian government.

About a thousand people marched to Parliament last Wednesday against the pharmaceutical company Novartis. Novartis has taken the Indian government to court over the Indian government’s refusal to grant the company a patent for a cancer drug called imatinib mesilate. Novartis’s product names for imatinib mesilate are Gleevec and Glivec. If a company has a patent on a drug in a country, it has the exclusive right to say how the drug may be sold in that country. Patents typically last 20 years. Patented drugs are almost always much more expensive while they are under patent because there are no competitors making it.

Imatinib mesilate is a modified form (or the salt form) of an older medicine simply called imatinib (i.e. without the mesilate). The older medicine is not patented in India. The Indian government rejected the patent on the grounds that imatinib mesilate is merely a new form of an old medicine and therefore is not patentable under Indian patent law. Novartis claims it has a right to patent the drug because it is better absorbed by the body.

Gleevec is currently available in the private sector in South Africa at R863 for a 400 milligram tablet. By comparison, a generic version of a 400 milligram imatinib mesilate tablet is sold in India by a company called Cipla for just R86.

“Novartis wants to prevent India from producing cheap medicines. 80% of the drugs used by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) are generic drugs imported from India,” said Mara Kardas-Nelson, who is the Access and Innovation Officer for MSF in South Africa. “If this patent is granted to Novartis it will be harder for India to produce generic drugs and access to low cost generics that are of high quality will be hard to obtain.”

Sydney Makgai is with the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and represents people living HIV in the organisation. He explained that TAC helped organised the march to Parliament because the organisation is concerned that if Novartis wins, it will have consequences for other medicines, such as antiretrovirals which are used to treat HIV.

The six year-long case is now at the Indian Supreme court where Novartis hopes to win after losing its first legal battle in 2007. Novartis wants a section of the Indian law removed that requires patent applicants to prove significantly improved efficacy before a patent can be granted.

In a statement released by Novartis they explained that they challenged the decision not to grant a patent to Gleevec in India because they believe in “safeguarding incentives for innovation through the granting of patents which leads to better medicines.”

Novartis also claims that the Gleevec International Patient Access Programme (GIPAP) helps more than 45,000 patients in 80 countries. The company stated that In South Africa, more than 50% of patients with chronic myeloid leukemia receive the drug free through GIPAP. They further said that more then 95% of all Gleevec patients in India also receive their medicine free through GIPAP and the remaining 5% are either reimbursed or insured patients.

The TAC’s Catherine Tomlinson responded, “Patents are granted to bring benefits such as innovation to society such as new medicines, not to allow pharmaceutical companies to make massive profits. Therefore patents should only be granted on medicines that are truly innovative, not simply new uses and new formulations of new medicines.”

Tomlinson said that a paper published in the journal of the International AIDS Society in 2011 found that while the rate of patents had increased over the last 20 years, pharmaceutical innovation had actually dropped.

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TOPICS:  Health

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