Back in October last year, in the context of India showing itself increasingly sceptical about pharma patents that drive up drug prices beyond the reach of its citizens, we wrote about an important court battle over Novartis's drug Gleevec, sold as Glivec in India. The definitive judgement from India's Supreme Court was announced today, reported here by The Guardian:
The Indian supreme court has refused to allow one of the world's leading pharmaceutical companies to patent a new version of a cancer drug, a decision campaigners hailed as a major step forward in enabling poor people to access medicines in the developing world.
The key issue at stake is a practice known as "evergreening": making small changes to a drug, often about to come off patent, in order to gain a new patent that extends its manufacturer's control over it. It's a way of cheating on the implicit bargain of patents: that a government-backed monopoly is granted in exchange for the invention entering the public domain at the end of the patent's lifetime.
Novartis lost a six-year legal battle after the court ruled that small changes and improvements to the drug Glivec did not amount to innovation deserving of a patent. The ruling opens the way for generic companies in India to manufacture and sell cheap copies of the drug in the developing world and has implications for HIV and other modern drugs too.
That's what makes today's decision so important. It's not just about allowing Indian generics manufacturers to offer Glivec for a fraction of the Novartis price; it's equally about establishing the principle that "evergreening" patents won't be as easy in India as it is elsewhere, where the practice is common. This will allow India's pharma companies to produce a wide range of drugs at low prices that can then be sold to emerging countries unable to afford Western prices.
Doubtless, many lives will be saved as a result, but that doesn't seem to be any comfort to the head of Novartis in India, who is quoted in a press release as saying:
"We strongly believe that original innovation should be recognized in patents to encourage investment in medical innovation especially for unmet medical needs," said Ranjit Shahani, Vice Chairman and Managing Director, Novartis India Limited. "We brought this case because we strongly believe patents safeguard innovation and encourage medical progress, particularly for unmet medical needs. This ruling is a setback for patients that will hinder medical progress for diseases without effective treatment options."
That's pretty much what you'd expect him to say, since we've heard it here on Techdirt so many times before: without patents that allow monopoly pricing and big profits, there will be no investment in new drugs, and everyone will suffer etc. etc. But this simply isn't true. Much of the fundamental research that leads to important new drugs is done in public laboratories, paid for by taxpayers around the world, not by pharma companies.
Here, for example, is the story of how Novartis came to gain its highly-lucrative monopoly on Gleevec/Glivec, as told by the key researcher who actually developed it: Brian Druker, chair of Leukemia Research and professor of medicine at the Oregon Health and Science University Cancer Institute. He explained how the crucial initial research was carried out in an opinion piece published on the Livemint site in 2007:
The basic research that led to the identification of enzyme inhibitors for CML [Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia -- the main condition that Glivec is designed to treat] dates back to 1960 with the identification of the Philadelphia chromosome in patients with CML by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, Peter Nowell and David Hungerford. In 1973, Janet Rowley at the University of Chicago determined that the abnormal chromosome was due to a translocation of genetic material.
No pharmaceutical companies seem to have been involved in this early work, and they were also minor players in the crucial move out of the laboratory, into product development, as Druker explains:
In 1993, I moved to Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland and had a single goal of finding a company that had the best inhibitor for Bcr-Abl [the cancer-causing protein] and to bring it into clinical trials. My work in Oregon on a therapy for CML was primarily funded by public sources, particularly the National Cancer Institute. My persistence with scientists at Ciba-Geigy (now Novartis) helped to keep the development of imatinib on their agenda despite uncertainty from product managers.
So not only was the drug developed largely thanks to public funds, but the pharma company that ended up making all the profits from it wasn't even hugely enthusiastic about the project initially: it was only Druker's "persistence" that led to the drug being approved. And if you're wondering about his views on the current world of pharma, with its stratospheric prices and a habitual recourse to evergreening to extend patents way beyond their original life-span, here's what he wrote back in 2007:
Pharmaceutical companies that have invested in the development of medicines should achieve a return on their investments. But this does not mean the abuse of these exclusive rights by excessive prices and seeking patents over minor changes to extend monopoly prices. This goes against the spirit of the patent system and is not justified given the vital investments made by the public sector over decades that make the discovery of these medicines possible.
The fact that many key drugs have only been possible thanks to those "vital investments made by the public sector" is nearly always overlooked by defenders of the pharma patent system. It's another reason why the Indian Supreme Court's decision is not only right, but just.
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