By Keya Acharya , IPS news
BANGALORE, Aug 27 (IPS) – Activist groups campaigning for affordable drugs will continue their boycott campaign against Swiss pharma major Novartis AG, whose controversial petition arguing that Indian patent laws violated World Trade Organisation (WTO) provisions was rejected by the Madras High Court in southern Chennai city.
The reason for continuing the boycott is due to the company filing indirectly related appeals in the Madras High Court, Dr. Gopal Dabade, president of the Drug Action Forum of India in Karnataka state (DAF-K) and co-convenor of the All-India Drug Action Network (AIDAN) told IPS. Novartis filed a fresh appeal, on Aug. 8, a day after it lost its petition against the Indian patents act in the Madras High Court, challenging the appointment of S. Chandrashekaran as Technical Member of the Intellectual Property Appellate Board (IPAB), constituted recently under the Indian Patent Act.
In January 2006, the assistant controller of the Indian patents ffice had rejected Novartis application for a patent for its cancer-drug Gleevec/Glivec, under the aegis of Chandrashekharan who was then the controller-general.
Novartis then protested that particular rejection in the Madras High Court which had sked the patents office to constitue the IPAB to hear Novartis appeal against rejection of its patent for Gleevec. The IPAB was then formed, having Chandrashekharan as member.
The companys first appeal to the IPAB to dismiss Chandrashekharan on the grounds that he may be biased against Novartis, having already overseen the rejection of Gleevecs patent application, was rejected.
It subsequently went to the Madras High Court and won a stay order on Aug. 8 on all proceedings related to Novartis by IPAB until its appeal was heard.
”I urge caution because of this fresh appeal by Novartis, because the company might avail of the current euphoria amongst campaigning groups, to push its agenda through without public attention,” Dabade said.
DAF-K and AIDAN have relaunched their boycott of Novartis medicines and sent letters to all 480 branches of the Indian Medical Association in Karnataka State to discuss the matter.
Anand Grover of Lawyers Collective who argued against Novartis petition in court on behalf of Cancer Patients Aid Association, is not unduly worried about Novartis fresh appeal and subsequent Stay Order on the IPAB, saying that this new appeal is unrelated to the companys challenging the Indian patent law.
”I think we now need to be alert to see whether, and if, pressure is applied on the Indian government to amend the patent law, Grover told IPS.
Dr. Amit Sengupta at the Delhi Science Forum, that works on science and technology policies that affect the public, including campaigning against Novartiss patent-claim, echoed Grovers sentiment. The victory in court is a major relief. The issue now is the extent to which the government can be forced to uphold the patent law, Sengupta said. We need to now see how much pressure from trade and other interests the government can withstand.”
However, civic groups are exulting in their victory over their win over Novartis petition, fought by eminent lawyers, Soli Sorabjee, past solicitor-general of India and Shanthi Bhushan, former union law minister.
”This is a huge deterrent against frivolous petitions, especially by private companies that challenge Indias sovereign laws, said Prasanna, Bangalore-based activist for Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, the Indian wing of the global Peoples Health Movement.
In April 2005, the Indian government as a signatory to the WTO and its trade-related intellectual property (TRIPS) provisions had amended its law to recognis 20-year patents on products, thereby annulling the countrys 7-year patents on processes.
A slew of important generic-drugs or those being produced after patent-expiry, were then forced off the market, unless, as per clause 3D in the amended patents act, the patent-application could be proved to be not new or involving innovative molecular research.
The Indian patents office had rejected the Gleevec application on the grounds that it was not innovative enough to warrant a patent.
Novartis had challenged clause 3D of the Indian Patents Act as being ambiguous and in violation of TRIPS, and had also appealed the rejection of its patent application for Gleevec.
”Developing countries and international agencies like UNICEF and the Clinton Foundation rely heavily on importing affordable drugs from India, and 84 percent of the AIDS drugs Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) prescribes to its patients worldwide come from Indian generic companies,” said MSF international director Christophe Fournier.
“We also need to question the manner by which MNCs such as Novartis get awarded corporate social responsibility awards by UN agencies”, says Dr. Thelma Narayan of the Community Health Cell in Bangalore and past convenor of Jan Swasthya Abhiyan.
”This is called bluewashing (to signifiy the UNs blue colours)”, says Narayan, calling on the U.N. to overhaul its awarding system to by taking into account a companys entire history.
Dabade too believes the companys “dubious history” needs to be publicly highlighted. Novartis was formed in 1996 by the merger of Sandoz, Ciba and Geigy companies which are subsidiaries of the infamous German IG Farben chemical cartel responsible for supplying Zyklon B, the lethal gas used in the gas chambers of Nazi concentration camps.
Meanwhile, Novartis has decided not to pursue its patent application for its anti-HIV drug Atazanavir in this country with the the Indian patent office declaring the patent application abandoned as on Aug.16.
Novartis has also, as a reaction to the Madras High Court ruling, indicated that it will now move large investments away from India. This (the ruling) is not an invitation to invest in Indian research and development, which we would have done. We will invest more in countries where we have protection, Novartis chief Daniel Vasella was quoted as saying by the British ‘Financial Times newspaper on Aug. 22.
According to Novartis, the Indian patent system stifled innovation that might improve a drug such as by making it injectable or easier to consume orally.