The Colombian Health Minister Alejandro Gaviria has announced that he will start proceedings to divest Novartis of its patent on the cancer drug Glivec Imatinib. The Swiss government was accused of lobbying against such a move.
On April 26, Gaviria revealed plans to approach the Colombian patent office and ask it to strip the Novartis patent on the grounds of public interest. This could lead the patent office to grant a compulsory license to allow the generic production of Glivec Imatinib at affordable prices by domestic firms.
In November 2014, a group of Colombian NGOs had asked the health ministry to declare access to Glivec a matter of public interest.
“It is a very courageous decision by the minister given the pressure from his own commerce ministry, Novartis, the US, Switzerland, and the pharma industry as a whole,” Patrick Durisch of the Swiss NGO Berne Declaration told swissinfo.ch.
The move would save Colombia around CHF12 million ($12.4 million) a year, he added.
The process of preparing a resolution to submit to the Colombian patent office will take a couple of weeks, and it will be a few months before the office announces its decision.
Tug of war
Four years ago, Colombia’s patent office denied Novartis’ patent for Glivec Imatinib. But the Swiss pharma giant took the issue to court and received a favourable decision in 2012. The patent prohibited the production of generic versions of the drug, which were 70% cheaper than the original.
The Colombian health minister then tried to negotiate with Novartis to bring the price of the drug down to 140 peso (CHF0.046) per milligram from its current price of 300 peso. But Novartis refused to budge on the price of Glivec Imatinib.
In 2014, Colombian NGOs requested that the health minister declare removing the Glivec Imatinib patent a matter of public interest. This would set into motion the process of stripping Novartis of its patent and allow cheap generic versions to be produced by domestic firms.
The Swiss government actively lobbied against this move in 2015, prompting accusations of siding with Novartis to the detriment of poor Colombian patients.
A Novartis spokesperson told swissinfo.ch that the company was not against the practice of issuing compulsory licenses in exceptional circumstances such as a public health crisis but was against the use of such a clause to force price negotiation.
"In the case of Glivec in Colombia, a DPI [Declaration of Public Interest] is inappropriate as there is no shortage of Glivec or evidence of other access issues, the price is already subject to government controls and there no monopoly with multiple generics already on the market."