Novartis loses patent battle

Published: Friday 31 August 2007

the verdict on the long-drawn Novartis case over the patent on the drug Gleevic, the Madras High Court has upheld the Indian Patent Act--at least for now. But there are about 7,000 drug applications in the mail boxes of various patent offices in the country. Tackling this onslaught on a case by case basis is impossible for either the government or proponents of cheap drugs. The process of challenging a patent application is extremely tedious. The only way an interested party can find out about a patent application is through scanning the journal of a patent office, in which only the chemical name of the substance is published.

It took one long year to fight Novartis over one drug patent. It required a Herculian effort from patient support groups, lawyers, ngos and the Indian generic drugmakers. All data supporting their case was put out in the public domain, the supporters held rallies, organised signature drives, and garnered support from governments around the world. That's what went into the victory for the patient support groups.

On how many similar cases can such an effort be made? Lots of similar cases--and many unjustified applications--are with patent offices in India. Already, 14 pre-grant oppositions and two post-grant oppositions have been filed. All these cases are against pharma majors like Roche, GlaxoSmithkline and Abbott. The Novartis verdict would, to an extent, help those contesting these patents. But there is a bigger question: why didn't Novartis apppeal the verdict in the Supreme Court, where the fate of Patent Amendment Act would be settled finally. If access to cheap drugs would be determined by one court decision, patients support groups are in a precarious situation.

Given that few people track developments on drug patents, it's quite likely they will miss out on significant patents, and then resorting to post-grant opposition. For example in May 2006, a patent was granted to Roche for a new generation drug to treat Hepatitis c. A post-grant opposition was filed with the Intellectual Property Apellate Body. In any case, most anti-patent groups are following only patents on drugs related to hiv/aids. There is little knowledge on developments related to patents on drugs for other diseases.

In the Novartis case, provisions of the domestic patent law have ensured that domestic imperatives are met. It is important that these dictate the terms.

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