Indian patients will be able to get a key cancer drug at a fraction of the price charged by its inventor, Swiss multinational Novartis, after the Supreme Court dismissed the company's efforts to win a patent on it, likely sparking more such attempts to bring costly Western medications to the masses.
Novartis had tried to extend the patent on Glivec, its treatment for blood and gastrointestinal cancer, with a modified version of the original drug.
But the apex court ruled against it on Monday on the grounds that the tweaked form was not a truly new product. Generally, multinational drug companies charge high prices for drugs protected by patents.
"It is a huge victory for human rights. A month's dose of Glivec costs around Rs. 1.2 lakh, while the generic drug costs Rs 8,000. This judgment will save the lives of the many thousands who cannot afford Rs. 1.2 lakh charged by greedy companies that keep patenting new forms of known drugs," says YK Sapru, chairman of the Cancer Patients Aid Association.
In addition to benefiting patients, the verdict will give a boost to domestic generic drug manufacturers, such as Cipla, as they can continue to sell copies of the drug at a lower price in India.
It is a big blow to multinationals banking on easy patent power, and will also reignite a debate in the West about intellectual property protection in India. The new form of Glivec enjoys patent protection in more than 40 countries.
The bench of justice Aftab Alam and justice Ranjana Prakash Desai said that no material had been offered to prove that the new form of Glivec would produce enhanced or superior efficacy "apart from the adroit submissions of the counsel".
Novartis India, the Swiss major's Indian arm, described the verdict as a "setback for original innovation", and said the company will not invest on R&D in the country.
"We will continue to invest here, but with caution and file patent applications for innovative products," Novartis India vice-chairman and managing director Ranjit Shahani told reporters after the verdict.
All eyes are now on similar cases involving other products from Western multinationals -- Pfizer's cancer drug Sutent and Roche's hepatitis C treatment Pegasys.
Both drugs had lost their patented status in India last year, decisions the companies are fighting to have reversed.
Last year, the patent office overruled German major Bayer AG's objections to allowing Natco Pharma to produce a generic version of cancer medicine Nexavar.