TB survivors challenge patents for better access to medicines

French company files applications on two combinations of isoniazid and rifapentine, one of which is vital for children while other for adults

Published - December 09, 2019 02:05 am IST - Mumbai

Nandita Venkatesan

Nandita Venkatesan

Survivors who have battled the deadly tuberculosis bacteria are now at the forefront challenging pharmaceutical companies on their demands to get patents on crucial drugs and are raising voices against the government inaction. While TB remains a screaming public health emergency, survivors say their voices cannot be sidestepped any more, if the disease has to be tackled head-on.

Last month, Mumbai-based survivor and activist Ganesh Acharya (39) challenged the two patent applications on combinations of TB medicines — isoniazid and rifapentine — filed by French pharmaceutical company Sanofi. Together, isoniazid and rifapentine form the 3HP regimen, a preventive treatment that can protect millions of people from contracting the disease.

Ganesh Acharya

Ganesh Acharya

“Both these drugs have been existing for a very long time. How can one ask a patent on their combination,” Mr. Acharya said, adding the combinations are important for children and other vulnerable people like those living with HIV. While one is a combination for adults, the second is a water-dispersible formulation meant for children.

Mr. Acharya who has battled HIV as well as TB said he is what he is today because of the medication. “The patients have to get access to better medicines.” He has challenged the patent with support from the Third World Network at the Indian Patent Office in Kolkata on November 5. The Delhi Network of Positive People has also opposed Sanofi’s patent applications.

Nandita Venkatesan, a TB survivor, and activist from Mumbai, said, “The argument is that if you are not producing anything novel, why do you ask for a patent?”

“I came across a research paper from last year which shows 70% of the patents that are granted are on frivolous and unmerited grounds,” she said.

Early this year, the 30-year-old along with a TB survivor from South Africa challenged a patent to prevent pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson from extending its monopoly to bedaquiline, one of the newest anti-TB drugs in nearly 50 years.

The World Health Organization (WHO) in its revised guidelines has labelled bedaquiline as a front line drug useful for those battling extensively drug-resistant (XDR) TB or pre-XDR TB. But the price of the drug remains a barrier. “The WHO guidelines triggered our move to fight for better access to bedaquiline,” said Ms. Venkatesan who lost her hearing due to the side effects of kanamycin injections that were given to her. She now wears cochlear implants. “Bedaquiline has fewer side effects. Patients who are eligible should get it,” she said.

Ms. Venkatesan said the Indian government cannot rely on the donation of bedaquiline by the pharma company if it is serious about fighting TB. “The government has to buy medicines and treat its patients. Relying on a donation programme is not the right way.”

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