In another example of the pharmaceutical industry’s efforts to make governments worldwide its enforcers, corporate giant Novartis today announced it would keep pushing its lawsuit for its “right” to get patents in India on minor repackagings of pre-existing drugs. India’s generic drug producers currently make a large part of the lifesaving drugs for AIDS and other diseases used in the world’s poorest countries. “Novartis is trying to shut down the pharmacy of the developing world,” according to Dr. Unni Karunakara of Doctors Without Borders.
In the test case, Novartis will fight India’s refusal to give it a patent on a slightly different form of the anti-cancer drug Gleevec (chemists have dismissed the modification as an “obvious” crystal form of the original drug). India’s 2005 patent law refuses patents to such “me-too” drugs that show no genuine innovation over the original (although the U.S. grants such patents, motivating companies to turn their attention from more substantive research).
Patents are entirely artificial, temporary monopolies granted by governments to serve a social purpose (i.e., research and development into new drugs – although a lot of the profit gets funneled into marketing and lobbying). Unsurprisingly, corporations like to repackage these monopolies as “intellectual property,” and then try to get them extended by the WTO and other trade agreements for longer periods, in more countries – even countries where a vanishingly small percentage of the population could ever hope to pay for under-patent drugs.
The ironic thing is that Gleevec (known in academic circles by the catchy name STI571) is the poster child of new medicines developed based on basic research – largely university-based and government-funded – into the human genome. Gleevec’s own testing was partly paid for by the federally-funded National Cancer Institute. When U.S. taxpayers ponied up the dollars to help scientists develop lifesaving medicines, I doubt they were planning to sponsor corporate lawsuits against the world’s poor.
Elizabeth Palmberg is an assistant editor of Sojourners magazine, which will have a special issue about trade justice in May.