'Indian patent for AIDS drugs would harm millions'
An application for an anti-AIDS treatment under India's new patent rules could push cheap drugs out of the reach of millions, medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) warned on Thursday.
Until last year, India did not recognize medical patents, leaving its pharmaceutical industry free to copy and sell foreign medicines, including cheap versions of AIDS drug cocktails known as anti-retrovirals.
Three weeks ago Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche was granted the first patent for a Hepatitis C treatment after a new law was brought in last year, which allows property rights of 20 years on all new medications.
India is now dealing with a backlog of drug applications, including one by British-based GlaxoSmithKline for anti-AIDS treatment Combivir.
"If India grants a patent on this AIDS drug, it will set a precedent that will hamper access to affordable AIDS medicines worldwide," MSF said in a statement received in New Delhi.
Indian rights groups have submitted papers opposing the application, saying that Combivir is not a new invention but rather a combination of two drugs already in use.
If the application is granted, companies that have been producing a generic version of the drug combination can continue to do so, but they will have to pay a royalty, forcing them to raise prices, they argue.
Companies not already producing a generic version of the anti-AIDS drug cocktail would not be able to do so until the patent expires 20 years later.
"Affordable generic AIDS medicines have been one of the cornerstones of our ability to keep more people alive, including here in India," said Pehrolev Pehrson, head of the MSF AIDS project in the northeastern state of Manipur.
Of the more than 60,000 people that MSF treats with generic AIDS medicines, at least 50,000 are taking drugs made in India.
"Without a reliable supply of low-cost AIDS drugs -- made possible because medicine patents did not exist in India for many years -- national governments and treatment providers will be faced with an uphill battle," Pehrson added.
GlaxoSmithKline originally filed for a patent in 1997, for consideration when India eventually recognized medical patents in line with World Trade Organization rules.
Several other key medicines are awaiting patent under the new act, including Roche's Tamiflu, known generically as oseltamivir, which is used in the treatment of bird flu.
Global AIDS activist groups had expressed their dismay over India's new rules when they were brought in early last year.
India is the world's third-biggest producer and prime exporter of generic drugs, which are cheaper than drugs sold under patent.