As US Trade Representative Arrives in Delhi, MSF Urges India to Stand Strong Against Attack on Affordable Medicines

Sami Siva

NEW DELHI—As US Trade Representative Michael Froman meets high-ranking Indian officials to likely pressure the government to weaken its pro-public health patent law, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) urged the new Indian Prime Minister to take a strong stand against weakening a law that has helped millions of people in India and across the developing world get access to 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. The new Prime Minister is in a unique position of responsibility in global health and we urge him to stand strong against US pressure so that India can continue to provide affordable medicines to millions of people in India and beyond.”

India’s patent law has allowed robust competition among generics producers to drive medicines prices down, leading to, for example, a 99 percent reduction in the price of HIV medicines, from more than $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.

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, which was deemed unaffordable in the country, at $5,500 per month. This move allowed generic versions of the drug to be sold in India, immediately bringing the price down to just $175 per month and enabling people to access the drug. Through strict criteria in India’s patent law that outlines what does and does not deserve a patent, India has avoided granting excessive monopolies to companies for new forms of existing medicines. Related to this part of the law, in April 2013, India’s Supreme Court upheld one of the key sections of India’s patent law in a landmark ruling against pharmaceutical company Novartis.

Despite the fact that both of these moves were entirely in line with India’s obligations under World Trade Organization rules, the US government and pharmaceutical industry have together increased pressure on India to weaken its law ever since. Specifically, 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 has also placed India on the US "Special 301 Watch List" over objections to the country’s intellectual property system and has announced an ‘out-of-cycle review’ of India’s intellectual property system, signaling the threat of sanctions against India.

“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.”

MSF nurse seen dispensing free medications and explaining patients how to take it at the MSF mobile clinic in Pusuguppa, which is a small village in AP along with border of Chhattisgarh. MSF mobile clinic provides free primary health care services which include diagnostic tests, vaccination, malaria and tuberculosis treatment, antenatal and postnatal consultations.
Sami Siva