The Patent Black Label: Six Side-Effects of India's Novartis Glivec Ruling

Pharmaceutical Executive

Monday’s decision by India’s Supreme Court to deny a patent for the top-selling oncologic drug Glivec took nearly a decade of litigation to resolve – but the implications in and beyond India are both immediate and lasting.

Monday’s decision by India’s Supreme Court to deny a patent for the top-selling oncologic drug Glivec took nearly a decade of litigation to resolve – but the implications in and beyond India are both immediate and lasting.  Here’s a list of six that Pharm Exec thinks are most important:

Patenting is a political act. Technical details of patent law aside, the Glivec ruling highlights the most contested issue in medicine today:  what constitutes true innovation in an age where scientific advances are transforming the very definition of a drug?  This is a question that extends far beyond patent law into basic value judgments like how society should spend limited resources on medical technologies, in a way that balances patient access with the economic incentives needed to seed their development in the first place.  The external demand for value – the pressure to prove it beyond doubt – is driving every aspect of the pharma supply chain today.  Seeking to raise the bar around the basic patenting criteria of novelty, non-obviousness and an innovative step, as the Glivec decision just did, is but one expression of this broader challenge facing the industry.

India has made a choice - on Industrial Policy grounds.  What is interesting about the 112-page Court judgment is not the cursory review of whether Glivec’s chemical reactant composition delivered an “enhancement of known efficacy” – a requirement for recognition as a patentable innovation – but the emphasis it places on broader issues of policy and economics.  The ruling quotes approvingly from the academic literature that “rules and regulations of the patent system are not governed by civil or common law but by the interest of the national economy.”  More than a third of the text traces the rise of the domestic drug industry, noting that “development of the bulk drugs sector is the most important achievement of the pharmaceutical industry in India,” an outcome it said was made possible by the absence of full patent protection for pharmaceuticals prior to completion of the country’s accession to the WTO TRIPS agreement in 2005.

A finding writ backwards.  The Court’s reasoning is rooted in a complacent approach to the dynamics of market growth and social change, to wit: reproducing other people’s drugs is a business model that works for India; preservation of the generic sector’s license to operate has been in India’s economic interest since confederation, and patent law should simply mirror that commitment.  Left unsaid is whether a court of law is competent to make such assumptions on the basis of past history when the Indian industry itself is undergoing a significant shift toward greater global engagement, with innovation – in process as well as products - emerging as an equally attractive alternative to copying.  India’s burgeoning, up-from-nothing CRO sector is one domestic constituency unlikely to plot new growth from the Court’s arguments. Another likely casualty is the rich infrastructure that surrounds modern drug innovation, from clinical trials, subsidies to academic teaching hospitals, to advanced manufacturing and improvements in supply chain technology.  Much of this investment is likely to continue to transit to more predictable host countries – like China.

No alms for the poor.  Nothing in the Court ruling suggests that the plight of those without access to essential medicines will improve. The decision simply maintains the status quo for Indian generic producers, most of who manufacture primarily for export – because the money is better abroad than at home. As the world’s largest exporter of bulk drugs, Indian producers bear some responsibility for a recent World Health Organization [WHO] survey that found prices for even the lowest-priced generic products sold through the private sector were at least nine to as much as 29 times higher than the agreed international organization reference price, in most WHO regions.  Even in the public sector, provision of essential generic medicines covers only about 42 per cent of the potential target population in developing countries.  Access to medicines is complex – it is a cliché that bears truth. Generic production, particularly for profit, will not by itself deliver what the Court ruling claims is the commitment underlying India’s patent law to “provide drug access to the rest of the world.”

Regional trade is the next phase in the activist war on patents. The Glivec case has shredded much of what was left of the industry’s multilateral IP agenda, a decline that started with CEO acquiescence to the November 2001 WTO Doha Ministerial Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health.  The Declaration, whose principles are embedded in the 2005 Indian patent law, limited the scope of drug patents where public health considerations intervene and thus had the effect of inhibiting enforcement of relevant TRIPS provisions.  In response, big Pharma has moved aggressively to shore up IP protection in key regional trade negotiations, including the pending Trans Pacific Partnership [TPP].  As in any political negotiation involving countries at different stages of development, the high profile given to the Glivec case has put the industry on the defensive in its drive for more uniformity in the standard of protection.  Operating on multiple fronts, activist groups intend to promote the Indian model of “IP flexibility” to allow for compulsory licensing, patent linkage, open pre-grant opposition and a low bar on data protection.

Industry strategy needs a re-think. The Glivec case suggests there is not much heft left to big Pharma’s reliance on insider lobbying and technical expertise to defeat the anti-patent access lobby and governments who apply IP as a discriminatory trade barrier.   Recovery must start with a better message. If what the industry describes as India’s patent “theft” can be justified by activists as providing more access to the poor, then most observers will say it is a vice that is easy to live with - especially when the top five big Pharma patent holders are currently sitting on an idle cash pile of nearly $70 billion.

Work underway in Africa to highlight how IP promotes civic engagement and job-creating entrepreneurship can break the perception that patent rights are a zero sum game, an instrument of power that hoards knowledge rather than liberates it.  More pressure on governments to sit down and negotiate structurally sound tiered pricing arrangements, with proper safeguards, can obviate the need to misapply patent law for pricing and cost containment purposes. Creative use of licensing can be a “win win,” with many examples evident in the HIV space. It’s also worth explaining how the science of drug discovery is changing, where companies – big and small – must collaborate to mitigate the risks from the evolution of knowledge as a “floating asset.”    Patents are a force multiplier – it’s the best solution to the “tragedy of the commons” that plagues many well-meaning drug development initiatives by taking too long to consummate and that often yield little actual value to patients.

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