MSF Urges Novartis to Drop Case Against Indian Government

Case will negatively impact access to medicines for millions across the world

New Delhi/Geneva, December 20, 2006 — A legal challenge by Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis against India's patent law could restrict access to affordable medicines in the developing world, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said today. The organization is urging Novartis to immediately drop the case.

India has long been an important source of affordable essential medicines because the country did not grant pharmaceutical patents until 2005. Generic antiretroviral medicines produced in India are used to treat over 80 percent of the 80,000 people that receive treatment today in MSF's HIV/AIDS projects in more than 30 countries.

"We rely on less-expensive, good-quality medicines produced in India to treat as many people with AIDS as possible," said Dr. Christophe Fournier, MSF international council president. "This key source of medicines can not be allowed to dry up."

Novartis was one of the 39 companies that took the South African government to court over five years ago in an effort to prevent the government from importing cheaper AIDS medicines.

"It feels like we're back in South Africa in 2001," said Dr. Tido von Schoen-Angerer, director of MSF's Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines. "Just like five years ago, Novartis, with its legal actions, is trying to stand in the way of people's right to access the medicines they need."

India's law contains provisions that help put people before patents, but Novartis is taking the Indian government to court to force a change in the law. The company is challenging a key public health safeguard enshrined within India's Patents Act that aims to restrict the granting of trivial patents. If Novartis gets its way, it could mean that essential drugs are more likely to be patented in India, thereby restricting generic production and keeping prices for newer medicines high.

A constant flow of affordable newer medicines is particularly important for the treatment of AIDS, as people inevitably become resistant to their medicines and need newer drug combinations. But currently, patent applications on crucial newer generation AIDS medicines await patenting decisions in India.

"For people like me, who live with HIV/AIDS, a win by Novartis will mean a step back in time to the days when we could not afford our medicines," said Loon Gangte of the Delhi Network of Positive People, speaking at a press briefing in New Delhi. "Generic competition is what has made first-line AIDS drugs affordable for people and for governments. Novartis needs to stop standing in the way of our right to access the medicines we need to stay alive."

MSF is launching an international petition today to put pressure on the company.

"We are here today to ask Novartis's CEO Daniel Vasella to immediately stop the legal action in India," said Christian Captier, General Director of MSF in Switzerland. "We are urging Novartis to drop the case and we're asking everyone, everywhere to sign on and support the petition."

Tags: Access to Medicines