Availability of cheap HIV-AIDS drugs threatened by Indian patent law

A controversial Indian patents bill could threaten the lives of millions of people worldwide living with HIV-AIDS and cancer by banning companies from producing cheap copies of brand name drugs.

Global health activists and groups representing those living with the diseases in Asia, Africa and Latin America are putting intense pressure on the Indian parliament to change the bill.

Anand Grover, lawyer and convener of Affordable Medicines and Treatment Campaign, a non-governmental organisation says they are not against patents but are against the Indian bill in its present form which goes beyond what is required under TRIPS, an agreement on intellectual property rights under the World Trade Organisation. These rights are agreed upon by member countries of the WTO.

According to Grover, developing countries such as India did not have to provide patent protection under TRIPS, and many previous Indian committees have said that patents apply to new molecules only.

The new bill goes far beyond this by increasing the scope of patentability even to new dosages, combinations and formulations of known drugs, and in its present form would bar Indian firms from producing the "three-in-one" fixed dose combination of anti-retroviral drugs widely used to treat those living with HIV-AIDS in the developing world.

Ellen T'hoen of the France-based Medecins Sans Frontieres, one of the activists attending a discussion on patents in Bombay, says the wide patentability is clearly done to favour the multinational companies, and until now, Indian firms have been able to make cheaper versions of patented drugs as India's patent laws protect the process of manufacture rather than the medicines themselves.

Many big pharmaceutical companies are based in India's western economic hub and by putting together the drug in a different way, some have been able to produce generics of all well-known products. Activists claim drug prices would rise substantially in the long term once product patents come into existence.

Y.K. Sapru of Indian Cancer Patients Association says the bill is a sure shot way to an early death to many cancer patients as only elite patients would be able to afford the drugs.

The proposed law could adversely affect treatment of millions of people living with HIV-AIDS in Africa; Tendayi Kureya, representative of the Pan African Treatment Access Movement, an umbrella group of more than 300 NGOs helping to make cheaper drugs available in Africa, says the new law could make it difficult for family groups suffering from HIV-AIDS using drugs of Indian companies such as Ranbaxy and Cipla currently costing 30 dollars per patient a month; patented products can cost two to three times more. Kureya himself has already lost a brother a few years back because of no medicine... he does not want to see someone else die because drugs are costly.

Fifty percent of HIV-AIDS patients in developing countries taking anti-retrovirals rely on India's form of "three-in-one" drugs and many African countries are urging the Indian government to drop the patents bill, introduced into parliament last Friday.

Indian officials who defend the new law as necessary to comply with WTO rules, claim HIV-AIDS patients will not suffer as Indian firms will be able to continue to supply drugs to countries that do not have manufacturing facilities of their own.

Africa is home to almost two-thirds of those living with HIV-AIDS around the world, according to the United Nations, which reported that in 2004, 3.1 million Africans became infected while 2.3 million died of AIDS.

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