Modi Urged to Stand up to US Pressure to Change Patent Law

Sami Siva

Originally published in Times of India.

NEW DELHI: US Trade Representative meeting high-ranking Indian officials during his India visit is worrying public health activists that he will pressurize the government to weaken India's patent law which is seen to be pro-public health, with built-in safeguards that prevent pharma companies from getting extensions on patents by tweaking existing molecules and claiming them to be innovation. 

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) issued a statement on Tuesday urging Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take a strong stand against weakening a law "that has helped millions of people in India and across the developing world access affordable life-saving medicines". 

"We rely on affordable medicines produced in India, which is called the 'pharmacy of the developing world,' so we are very worried the US Trade Representative is here in Delhi to try to shut it down," said Leena Menghaney, South Asia Manager for MSF's Access Campaign. "We have been watching closely in recent months as the US Trade Representative's office and pharmaceutical industry officials meet steadily and intensively to try and pressure India to change its patent law to one that puts corporate profits over people's health." India's patent law is credited with making it possible for generic producers to drive medicines prices down, as in the case of the price of HIV medicines, where Indian companies managed to bring down cost from over $10,000 per person per year in 2000 to roughly $100 today. "Access to affordable HIV medicines from India has been instrumental in the historic scale-up of HIV treatment to more than 13 million people in developing countries today, including nearly one million in India. Many governments and treatment providers, such as MSF, rely on affordable quality generic medicines from India to treat life-threatening diseases," said the MSF statement. 

India has faced fierce pressure from the US government and the pharmaceutical industry as it has made use of public health measures in its patent law. In March 2012, India issued a "compulsory license" for the cancer drug sorafenib, deemed unaffordable at $5,500 per month. The compulsory licence allowed Indian companies to bring down the price to just $175 per month. 

Strict criteria in India's patent law which outline what does and does not deserve a patent, has helped India avoid granting excessive monopolies to companies for new forms of existing medicines, said Menghaney. This section of the law was also upheld by the Supreme Court in its landmark ruling against the pharma company Novartis. Despite India's patent laws and the public health safeguards in it being fully compliant under World Trade Organization rules, the US government and pharmaceutical industry have been increasing pressure on India to weaken its law ever since. They have lobbied against India's stricter patentability criteria; and against the discretion of the Patent Controller to grant a compulsory license to a competitor to bring down the prices of medicines that are patented. 

The US government reviewed India's intellectual property system and declared it inadequate placing it on the US "Special 301 Watch List" which could invite trade sanctions. Indian public health activists asked if it is US patent laws that needed to be reviewed along the lines of India's patent laws as in its current form, US patent laws seem to fail to protect its citizens from predatory pricing of pharma companies. 

"India has been a global leader in ensuring access to medicines in developing countries, so the world will be watching closely to see whether the country will cave under US pressure or not," said Rohit Malpani, director of policy and analysis at MSF's Access Campaign. "Several of India's BRICS peers like Brazil and South Africa are looking to India's law for inspiration as they try to reform their own patent laws to limit abuse of the patent system in the interest of access to medicines."

A MSF staff nurse seen sorting pills to be distributed to the MDRTB patients at the MSF Clinic in Mumbai.
Sami Siva