Indian Supreme Court upholds India's Patient Act

The Indian Supreme Court's decision to uphold India's Patient Act serves as a victory for patient access to affordable medicine, Médecins Sans Frontières said on Monday.

The Delhi-based court upheld the law despite a seven-year challenge by Novartis, a Swiss pharmaceutical company. Novartis purportedly challenged the law to receive more extensive patent protection for its products than what was offered by Indian law.

"This is a huge relief for the millions of patients and doctors in developing countries who depend on affordable medicines from India, and for treatment providers like MSF," Unni Karunakara, MSF's international president, said. "The Supreme Court's decision now makes patents on the medicines that we desperately need less likely. This marks the strongest possible signal to Novartis and other multinational pharmaceutical companies that they should stop seeking to attack the Indian patent law."

India's Patient Act included a safeguard known as Section 3(d) to prevent companies from abusing the patent system when it granted patents on medicines to comply with international trade laws. The section prevents companies from gaining patents on modifications to existing drugs to stop companies from gaining interminable, indefinite monopolies.

In the first case before the High Court in Chennai, Novartis claimed the act violated the Indian Constitution and did not meet World Trade Organization rules. After losing the first case, it launched a subsequent appeal before the Supreme Court. The court rejected all claims by Novartis on Monday.

"Novartis's attacks on 3(d), one of the elements of India's patent law that protect public health, have failed," Leena Menghaney, India manager for MSF's Access Campaign, said. "Patent offices in India should consider this a clear signal that the law should be strictly applied, and frivolous patent applications should be rejected."

Novartis expressed concerns in court over the implications of the decision on the major question of financial innovations in medicine.

"At the moment, medical innovation is financed through high drug prices backed up by patent monopolies, at expense of patients and governments in developing countries who cannot afford those prices," Karunakara said. "Instead of seeking to abuse the patent system by bending the rules and claiming ever-longer patent protection on older medicines, the pharmaceutical industry should focus on real innovation, and governments should develop a framework that allows for medicines to be developed in a way that also allows for affordable access. This is a dialogue that needs to happen. We invite Novartis to be a part of the solution, instead of being part of the problem."