Headlines have been trumpeting the Indian Supreme Court’s decision to deny a new patent for the cancer drug Gleevec as an attack on intellectual property rights and a win for patients in need of cheap drugs. Those headlines are misleading.
What the ruling actually demonstrates is that India has set a high bar for determining what is “innovative.” The United States could learn a thing or two from India – particularly since Washington’s excessively liberal patent system led to a ridiculous spat last year between Samsung and Apple over whether a rectangular cellphone screen with rounded corners was patentable.
To understand the dynamics of this uproar, a brief history lesson is required. Novartis patented Gleevec in 1993, a time when India did not grant product patents for drugs. After Indian law changed to allow them in 2005, Novartis came up with a variation of Gleevec, claiming this improved the drug’s effectiveness – and so qualified for a patent.
The Indian Patents Office rejected the claim as insufficiently innovative. Other appellate bodies and the Supreme Court concurred.
The response from patient and pharmaceutical advocates alike has been loud – but misguided. Y.K. Sapru, of the Cancer Patients Aid Association in Mumbai, declared: “We are happy that the apex court has recognized the right of patients to access affordable medicines over profits for big pharmaceutical companies through patents.”