Putting Lives Before Patents: India Says Pricey Patented Cancer Drug Can Be Copied

from the hello-compulsory-licenses dept

India has an interesting relationship with pharmaceutical patents. In 1970, India did away with drug patents entirely, believing it would help create a domestic drug industry. And it worked. As we discussed in the past:
2,237 licensed drug manufacturers in 1969-1970 grew to 16,000 by 1991-1993, production of drugs grew at an average rate of 14.4% per year from 1980 to 1993, India became a net exporter of pharmaceutical products, and the market share of foreign multinational corporations (MNCs) dropped from 80-90% to 40% (Fink 2005). In 1995, six of the top ten pharmaceutical firms in India were domestic, and employment in the sector had reached half a million people
Now, remember how people say that without intellectual property, industries protected by those monopolies collapse? Yeah, the opposite happened in India. And yes, many were producing generic versions, but not all of them were. Either way, despite all of this success, the international community, pressured by the big pharmaceutical firms, cracked down on such practices, and demanded that if anyone wanted to join the WTO -- an important organization for large countries to be a part of -- they had to recognize pharmaceutical patents as per the TRIPS agreement. India finally did so in 2005.

However, one key point in TRIPS that developing countries such as India and Brazil have paid close attention to is the fact that they can force a compulsory license on a drug patent holder in the interest of public health.

For the first time since re-instating patents on pharmaceuticals, India has granted just such a compulsory license, covering a kidney and liver cancer drug marketed under the name Nexavar. Indian generic drug company Natco requested a license, noting that Nexavar was in short supply in India and exceptionally expensive. A typical dosage costs around $70,000 per year in India -- something Bayer says is necessary to recoup the drug's R&D costs. However, reports show that it cost less than $300 million to develop this drug (not to mention that the US government subsidized the process) and Bayer has already made billions selling the drug around the world. In a detailed ruling (pdf and embedded below), India's Controller of Patents (nice title) granted Natco the right to make the same drug, requiring it to sell it at a significantly lower price than Bayer sells Nexavar for, and then pay back to Bayer a 6% royalty rate (which is actually at the high end of what the UN recommends). Natco has to make the drug itself and can't name it Nexavar, make it look the same or even state that it's the same as Nexavar -- but it can make its own version of the drug and sell it, and the license lasts the life of the patent. Bayer can and almost certainly will appeal, but this is going to be interesting to watch for a few reasons.

The real question here is how the US will react to this. The Obama administration has been trying to exempt drugs that treat non-communicable diseases (such as cancer medication!) from such compulsory license rights. In the meantime, the big (non-Indian) drug companies have been working hard to lock up the Indian drug market with patents. Not surprisingly, the Obama administration and the big drug companies have a cozy relationship when it comes to dealing with patents in India.

It's likely that you'll start to hear some rumblings from the US government about how this kind of ruling is a "problem" and how India isn't "respecting" international patent law. Expect to see diplomatic pressure placed on India to put limits on its compulsory licensing program, and potentially even noises about how India has to change its patent laws to "update" them and "harmonize" them with the world. Also don't be surprised if stuff like this leads India to jump up the charts on next year's Special 301 reports from the USTR, which list "naughty" countries. It's probably too late to make it into this year's list for this particular move. Is it really any wonder that India is so worried about ACTA? It knows that ACTA is entirely about ratcheting up enforcement, without any exceptions for things like this where something as important as saving lives comes into play.

Filed Under: cancer, compulsory license, health, india, nexavar, patents, pharmaceuticals, trips, wto
Companies: bayer, natco

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Mar 2012 @ 2:50pm


    If you read the story carefully you would have noticed that the respect you are talking about is not only not necessary is unwanted.

    There should be no such respect because that respect comes at the exclusion of others who could come in and do a better job at producing or finding something.

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