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Friday, 23 January 2015

Ahead of Obama visit, MSF cautions India of US pressure against India’s patent law

Ahead of US President Obama’s visit to India, the international medical humanitarian organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has expressed deep concern over the US government’s heightened efforts to undermine access to affordable medicines from India.

The US has been scaling up pressure on India and increasing visits to the country over the last several months in order to aggressively campaign against India’s patent law. The country’s law sets a high bar for what merits a patent in an effort to prevent abusive pharmaceutical patenting practices, such as ‘evergreening,’ which put profit over public health by blocking production of more affordable generics. The US is pushing for India to adopt intellectual property (IP) measures similar to those common in the US and EU, which would ultimately result in unaffordable medicine prices for both India and the countries that rely on affordable medicines made in India.

“The US is pushing India to play by its rules on intellectual property, which we know will lead to medicines being priced out of reach for millions of people,” said Dr. Manica Balasegaram, executive director of MSF’s Access Campaign.

US pressure already appears to be having an impact as the new Indian government has been delaying a decision to allow generic production of an exorbitantly-priced patented anti-cancer medicine that is unaffordable in the country—an action recommended by a Health Ministry expert committee to increase access to affordable versions.

Also in response to US pressure, the Indian Commerce Minister in November last year set up a high-level ‘think tank’ to draft national IP policy. First draft of the policy recently released is alarming. The draft emphasises patent monopolies as the key driver of innovation, when such claims have been refuted by numerous studies, and experts at the World Health Organization, which have found IP in fact to be a barrier to both access to affordable medicines, and innovation for medicines desperately needed by developing countries for diseases such as TB.

“We need the Indian government to pay very careful attention to what the US is up to right now,” said Rohit Malpani, Director of Policy and Analysis of MSF’s Access Campaign.  “India has been a leader in promoting access to affordable medicines and new innovation models, but this could all unravel very fast if the Indian government caves into US pressure. The think tank so far seems to be singing to Big Pharma’s tune of undermining global efforts to finally overhaul today’s system of how medicines are developed and priced.”

At the same time, the Obama visit comes in the wake of a critical decision by India’s Patent Controller to deny a patent to pharma company Gilead for the hepatitis C drug sofosbuvir—an example of how important India’s law is to encouraging price-lowering generic competition. The drug is priced in the US at US$84,000 for a three-month treatment course ($1,000 per pill), although studies estimate its production for a three-month course could be as low as $101 (about $1 per pill). The UK’s National Health Service is delaying introduction of the drug because of its cost, and protests have erupted in Spain over the drug’s rationing as a result of its price.

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