Trade minister Anand Sharma said India would revoke drug patents if outbreaks of serious diseases or pandemics made it necessary, defending a Supreme Court ruling against Swiss drug firm Novartis.
The Supreme Court dealt a blow to Western drugmakers on April 1 when it threw out Novartis' bid to win patent protection for cancer drug Glivec and set a benchmark for intellectual property cases in a country where many patented drugs are unaffordable for most of the population of 1.2 billion.
Speaking during a visit to the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva, Sharma said the court decision was "absolutely justified" under the intellectual property rules of the World Trade Organization, known as the TRIPS agreement. The government had never exercised its executive right to force a company to make its drugs available cheaply, but reserved its right to do so, he said.
"What is good, to allow people to die or to make the medicine available? That's the larger question," he said. "So far it's in the realm of speculation, but it is a flexibility that has been negotiated and integral into the TRIPS agreement.
"This is a flexibility that is granted to countries under law," he said.
Developed countries had used the right to compulsory licensing more than 160 times, including more than 63 times by the executive route, he said, and there was no reason why developing countries could not make affordable medicines available in response to an epidemic or a life threatening disease.
"I cannot be a fortune teller. I cannot decide for tomorrow whether some new strain of avian flu will come or whether there will be another pandemic that will require intervention of the state."
Novartis had "absolutely no reason to complain" to the government because its case was not decided by the government and the court had acted independently, he said.
He denied that the Glivec decision would affect research and development investment into India.
"I don't see that it's going to be dissuading the multinationals from investing in R&D," he said, adding that India, as a source of so much intellectual property, had an interest in protecting it.