India Novartis patent ruling: Good for access, bad for innovation?

Indian protesters lift a balloon shaped like a medicine capsule during a demonstration against Swiss drug manufacturer Novartis, outside their offices in Mumbai on December 21, 2012.

India's Supreme Court has ruled against Swiss drug maker Novartis, as the company sought patent protection for a new version of its cancer drug Gleevec (spelled Glivec in some markets). The decision has implications for the pharmaceutical industry and millions of people in poor countries.

The basic question in this Supreme Court case was whether Novartis could tweak one of its drugs and gain patent protection. The answer was no.

Jennifer Cohn of Doctors Without Borders says that’s a huge win for people all over the world.

"India has been called the pharmacy to the developing world," says Cohn, "and that’s because it provides a great deal of affordable, quality generic medicines to people living in low and middle-income countries."

According to Cohn, the ruling potentially blocks efforts to increase the number of patents in other emerging markets. Pharmaceutical companies warn this limits their ability to invest in new drugs that could combat illness and disease.

Andy Berens at Bloomberg says the more the rest of the world uses generics, the more western nations will be called on to subsidize corporate research and development.

"If the developing countries can fund some of this resarch and develoment cost…it makes it easier for the U.S. to not have to bear the burden of that innovation," says Berens.

Berens adds that the real threat to drug makers is if countries like the U.S. also adopt more generic-friendly policies. A development Berens sees as unlikely.

About the author

Dan Gorenstein is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Health Desk. You can follow him on Twitter @dmgorenstein.

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