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By Gopal Dabade
If patents are granted to a company, the price of the drug would be beyond the reach of the masses.
Just a few days back several groups of individuals, known popularly by their acronyms as INP+ and PWN, which stand for Indian Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS and the Positive Women’s Network, working and campaigning for the rights of those having HIV/AIDS (most of them need medicines just for their just survival) celebrated it. Not many know and appreciate this victory. It was because Boehringer Ingelheim, the Germany based giant — a profit making drug manufacturing company — had its patent application rejected by the Indian Patent Office at Delhi, for a drug by name Nevirapine.
Boehringer Ingelheim is one of the world’s 20 leading pharmaceutical companies operating globally in 47 countries. In 2007, the company posted net sales of 10.9 billion euro, thus proving to be among the most profitable and also a powerful drug company in the world.
The drug nevirapine sold by the company under the trade name Viramune is used by AIDS patients. It is specially useful when the pregnant mother is HIV positive, as it needs to be either administered to her just before the baby is born or given to the baby soon after birth as it prevents the new born getting HIV.
It is estimated that a mother infected with HIV has 25 to 45 per cent risk of passing on the infection to her baby and when this drug is administered, the risk of transmission can be brought down to less than 1 per cent. Thus this drug prevents MTCT -an abbreviation used for Mother To Child Transmission.
India has the second highest number of HIV infected individuals. Of these, approximately more than two lakh are children. These children face some of the most tragic consequences of HIV infection: Being orphaned, nursing sick and dying parents or struggling for survival on streets.
Mother to child transmission is the largest source of HIV infection in children below 15 years.
It is obvious that this particular drug has an important public health role in the Indian context. And it was for the syrup form of this particular drug that the company Boehringer Ingelheim had sought the patent.
If patents were granted for this drug to the company that would have meant that the price of the drug would be at the dictates of the company, which in no time would have put it beyond the reach of the vast majority of people.
The reasons for the decision of not granting patents on the syrup form of the drug is enshrined in the Indian Patent Act, under section 3(d).
This particular section prevents drug companies from making frivolous claim on patents i.e., claim on patents that are not really discoveries or they are claims which are not worth granting patents, as they happen to be just minor changes. It is also known as “evergreening of patents.”
This particular section of Indian Patent Act has received much needed attention. Not just in India but globally as well. A similar incident occurred when the Swiss multinational drug company Novartis’ application for grant of patents was rejected by the Chennai patent office during January 2006. Novartis claimed that its drug i.e., Glivec was an innovation, while it was not so.
If at all the patent was granted to Novartis for this drug meant to treat a form of blood cancer, then other Indian companies would have had to stop manufacturing it as Novartis would have the absolute monopoly rights. The Indian companies manufacture the drug for Rs 8,000 per month per person, where as Novartis would sell the same drug for Rs 1.2 lakh per person per month!
When Novartis application was rejected, it went to the Chennai high court and challenged rejection of it, forcing several doctors and consumers to resort to a campaign to boycott Novartis products.
Will Boehringer Ingelheim, follow the same path? We need to watch and wait. It is not just these two drugs that are at stake, but a whole lot of them are in the pipeline.
And if these two drugs get clearance, they will set a precedence and then plenty of life saving drugs will be beyond the reach of a vast majority of people.