Drug patents are designed to create profits that enable more research on diseases affecting millions. But in practice, they have often generated super profits for big pharma companies while erecting access barriers for the poor. The Novartis case spotlights much that is wrong with the system.

The rejection of the Novartis petition challenging one of the most progressive tenets of the Indian Patents Act (1970), as amended in 2005 by the Supreme Court, is a landmark verdict for the public health community and the generic drugs industry, in particular, and for global health. Under the amended Indian Patents Act, Section 3(d) allows drug companies to obtain product patents for new salts or chemical ingredients. This is intended to encourage drug companies to protect their rights and prevent these from being copied by competitors, allowing for a 20-year protection period to recoup investments. However, Section 3 (d) does not encourage frivolous patents. It is intended to encourage only breakthrough innovations and discourage new use of known chemical substances or new delivery mechanisms of existing chemical compounds.

Transnational drug companies not only possess the first mover advantage, but owing to the high-voltage brand image they create, often extend their patents well beyond the already long period of protection. Drug companies are known for ‘evergreening’ patents by filing new patents, tweaking existing molecules to show novelty. Innovation is a red-herring, often used by multinational drug companies to make super-profits at the expense of social good and well-being. Under the mailbox agreement of Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) provisions, India received over 9,000 mailbox applications as patent filings post-2000, while a major share of those were for pharmaceutical patents. Global evidence, on the other hand, shows that roughly 275 such patents were filed and granted for blockbuster drugs during this period. In order to pre-empt Indian generics companies from producing these drugs and to keep them away from the market, the big pharma companies have flooded the patent offices with frivolous patent applications, known to be existing molecules tweaked to appear as a novel product.

The R&D myth

The night before the apex court verdict, Novartis threatened to stop investing in research and development in India, if the verdict went against it. How serious is the threat and how realistic the scenario? In India’s drug production of over Rs. 100,000 crore, Novartis’ turnover is a little over Rs. 1,000 crore, constituting around one per cent. Out of the total expenditure of over Rs. 800 crores incurred by Novartis India in 2012, a paltry Rs. 29 lakhs was for R&D, constituting roughly 0.03 per cent of its entire expenditure in India.

Can such low spending can be considered R&D investment? In fact, Novartis R&D expenditure in India for the past five years has been in a similar range. On the other hand, Novartis consistently posted a profitability ratio (Profit After Tax as percentage of Total Income) of over 15 per cent in the last five years, something to envy for other sectors.

Big Pharma argues that if global R&D of innovator companies were to be considered, transnational drug corporations spend over US $ one billion to come up with a new drug. This includes cost of R&D incurred on failed drugs as well, as pharmaceutical companies take, on an average, roughly 12-13 years to get patents on new drugs. The magic one billion dollar figure is a gross overestimate. Even by conservative calculations, this figure would be one-fifth or one-fourth of the billion dollar estimate. But Big Pharma is quick to recoup its R&D spending from blockbuster drugs. Take the case of Gleevec (Imatinib Mesylate), sold in the US. Novartis raked in a total turnover of US $ 1.69 billion from the US alone in 2012 from the drug. The global turnover on Gleevec is anybody’s guess. It is also widely known that the cost of manufacturing drugs is only a fraction of the turnover.

Novartis currently sells Glivec (Gleevec) for Rs. 4,115 per tablet, while Resonance, an Indian generic drug company dispenses it at Rs. 30 per tablet. The annual cost of treatment per patient on Glivec would be in the range of Rs. 15 lakhs while Indian generic companies are offering it at Rs. 10,000. If Novartis were to get its patent on Glivec, Indian generic companies would have to stop their production, and therefore an unaffordable scenario would have prevailed for the common man in not only India but in other developing countries. Thankfully, the court ruled in favour of Section 3 (d) of the Patent Act.

Novartis claims that 95 per cent of cancer patients in India were provided the medicine free. This is patent untruth. Retail market sales in India for Glivec, sold by Indian generics producers are currently worth Rs. 20 crores. Novartis sells Glivec directly to patients and not through the usual retail chain, a system that is designed to make people believe that they offer the drug free.

After seven years of battle, the Supreme Court verdict seals this issue, facilitating Patent Controllers to strictly enforce Section 3 (d), thereby pre-empting pharmaceutical companies that seek to evergreen products. However, there are several other safeguards that are enshrined in the patent law that must be utilised to make life-saving and essential drugs affordable. And one such key safeguard is invoking compulsory licensing for blockbuster drugs, if the original manufacturer fails to sell it affordable rates.

Last year, India invoked the provision to license generic player Natco to produce Nexavar, after Bayer, the innovator failed to make it affordable. Such policy measures are critical, in order to improve access to life-saving medicines, as households in India are known to pay nearly 70 per cent of their health care spending on medicines.

(Dr. Sakthivel Selvaraj is Senior Health Economist, Public Health Foundation of India, New Delhi.)