AIDS activists, students, and community groups “OCCUPIED” the offices of pharma giant Novartis today in three US cities on the eve of the Swiss pharmaceutical company’s annual shareholders meeting in Switzerland. The effort was part of a global day of action drawing attention to the company’s lawsuit against cancer patients and the government of India, aiming to reinterpret India’s patent standards to block access to life-saving generic medicines.
In 2006, Novartis sued the Indian government after its request for a patent on its blockbuster cancer drug Gleevec was denied. The Novartis version of the drug costs roughly ten times the cost of the high-quality generics on the market and the company is trying to stop production of those versions. Prior to 2005, India did not grant patents on medicines at all – a policy that fostered generic production of essential medicines then shipped to poor countries around the world. After a World Trade Organization agreement forced India to start granting patents in 2005, India created Section 3(d) of its patent law that requires pharmaceutical companies to demonstrate that changes to an existing substance actually shows increased efficacy for patients before a new patent is granted—preventing frivolous patents. Novartis was unable to show that its tweaks to the basic compound in Gleevec had resulted in improved efficacy in treating cancer.
“Without this protective provision in place, patents will be granted indiscriminately on trivial changes to existing medicines, thereby preventing generic production and allowing drug companies to charge high prices,” explained Brook Baker, policy analyst for Health GAP (Global Access Project).
India has historically proved vital in the global fight against AIDS—producing the vast majority of high quality, affordable drugs used in Africa and throughout the world.
“Novartis’s shortsighted corporate greed could have disastrous long-term consequences for nations reliant on generic medicines. India supplies 80% of AIDS medicines in the developing world as well as good quality generic equivalents for many other health needs. Poor patients will continue to need access to new, improved, and affordable medicines instead of having them blocked by successive patent monopolies,” said Darshali Vyas, from Harvard College and member of the Student Global AIDS Campaign.
Since Novartis initiated action against the Indian government, protests have been held around the world. On Wednesday, demonstrators in New York, Washington, and Boston stood in solidarity with actions in India, Switzerland, and other regions. “We’re here to try to ensure that India remains the pharmacy of the developing world,” said Katrina Ciraldo, Boston University medical student and member of Occupy Boston’s Health Justice group.