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India patent case threatens cheap drug supply

NEW DELHI, Septr 5 – Supply of cheap copycat drugs for the developing world could be blocked if Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis wins a challenge to India’s patent law, medical charity MSF said on Monday.

The warning came as India’s Supreme Court was due Tuesday to hear more arguments in an appeal by Novartis seeking patent protection for its leukaemia drug Glivec in a case watched closely by the global pharmaceutical industry.

“If the patent law challenge is successful, it would have a devastating impact on access to affordable medicines across the developing world,” said Leena Menghaney, India representative of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF).

Novartis is “trying to shut down the pharmacy of the developing world,” she said.

The Supreme Court case is the final act in a legal battle between Novartis and patient groups which has stretched over six years in India, where local firms produce generic versions of branded drugs for a fraction of their price.

Pharmaceutical companies argue that protecting patents are crucial to stimulating the research and development of new drugs.

Novartis’ challenge goes to the heart of India’s patent act, which says a new patent cannot be granted for an old drug unless changes make it significantly more effective.

Novartis said it could not make any immediate comment. But in the past the drug maker has insisted so-called “incremental innovations” should be patentable and India’s refusal breaches World Trade Organization (WTO) obligations.

MSF buys 80 percent of its generic AIDS drugs from India, and the humanitarian organisation said it is currently keeping 170,000 people in 19 countries alive through the treatment.

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“We couldn’t afford to treat them all without these generic drugs,” said Joanna Keenan, spokesman for the Geneva-based charity.

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