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Press consider Novartis ruling short-sighted

Novartis has lost the war against generics in India Keystone

The landmark decision of the Indian Supreme Court to reject patent protection for Glivec, a cancer “wonder drug” developed by Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis, has been roundly criticised in many Swiss newspapers.

The ruling cements the role of Indian companies as big suppliers of inexpensive generics to India’s rapidly growing $13 billion (CHF12.3 billion) drug market and also across the developing world.

India introduced drug patenting in 2005 with a provision to exclude the protection for medicines which it considers a modification of an existing compound. The majority of patent applications in Europe fall into this category, setting the scene for the seven-year Glivec legal battle, amongst others.

“No victory for the poor” is the headline of the commentary in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper, which is at pains to point out how unsurprising the outcome was. “No one expected the judges in this politicised case to deliver a judgment that would give the impression that the interests of a multinational would be put before the needs of its own poor population.”

“What is amazing is how much time the process has taken up; a process length of seven years has done nothing to encourage confidence in the soundness of India’s legal system.”

The NZZ also deems it no surprise that Novartis’ loss is being celebrated by non-governmental organisations as a victory for the poor. The editorial writer fears that India’s soft approach to patent protection in breach of World Trade Organization (WTO) norms could ultimately prevent Western pharmaceutical companies from launching new products in the sub-continent – to the detriment of the poor.

‘Political decision’

The Tages-Anzeiger argues in the same vein, recommending that the case be brought before the WTO. “In the end it is about industry politics in India. Because here an ambitious emerging economy is protecting its own generic manufacturers, which have grown large thanks to the long-standing lack of patent protection.”

The analysis in the Tages-Anzeiger looks at the broader problem of pricing in different markets and the necessity of patients in richer countries to foot the bill for research and development.

“The question of the availability of generics from India and elsewhere is just one aspect of a much larger problem, that this judgment was not capable of solving. For many people in poor countries even generics are too expensive. To offer good health coverage to the maximum number of people, a great act of solidarity is required on the part of the Western industrialised nations.”

In French-speaking Switzerland 24 Heures implied that the judgment was a deserved slap in the face for Novartis, “after the failed departure of its chairman Daniel Vasella, who ultimately had to renounce his CHF72 million golden parachute”.

The decision will have the effect of bringing Novartis “back to earth”, the paper’s Zurich correspondent wrote. “Novartis, arrogant, sure of its power, went to the limit.”

Closely watched

According to the Schumpeter blog in The Economist, “the case was watched closely by virtually everyone with an interest in selling medicines or benefiting from them, including drug firms, trade officials and patient advocates”.

“Innovative drug companies have faced two key questions in India. First, will India’s young patent regime, in place since 2005, provide the same protection as those in America and Europe? Second, will Indian regulators tolerate high drug prices? The answer to both questions seems to be ʻnoʼ.”

The Financial Times analysis has the headline “Drug ruling keeps focus on pricing”.

“The Glivec judgment highlights the continued pressure for a new deal in drug pricing that allows for far more affordable access to expensive medicines. Given India’s poorly funded health system, cheaper drugs alone will not provide a solution. But their role is pivotal and patent protection will not be ignored either by activists or generic rivals.”

Novartis’ home town newspaper, the Basler Zeitung, played down the consequences of the judgment for the pharma giant. “The consequences of this decision for Novartis are negligible in comparison to their international business,” the editorial pointed out.

“For the Indian pharmaceutical industry it is positive in the short-term but longer term this defensive policy will cost them because following this decision, Western pharma groups will no longer invest in India.” This will leave India short on know-how and vulnerable in the case of an epidemic, the Basel newspaper warned.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR