Showdown for big pharma in SC


The Supreme Court will hear final arguments starting this week in a landmark case over drug patents that could change the rules for the country's healthcare sector and potentially curb its global role as a supplier of cut-price generic medicines.

The Supreme Court hearing pits Swiss drugmaker Novartis AG against India's patent office, which has refused to grant a patent on the company's cancer drug Glivec on the grounds that it is not a new medicine but an amended version of a known compound.

A patent would give Novartis exclusive marketing rights and stop cheaper versions being produced by India's generic drugmakers, who supply medicine to the country's 1.2 billion people and to poorer nations across the world.

The case has rekindled tensions between Big Pharma and India, following a decision by the patent office in March to strip Germany's Bayer AG of its exclusive right to sell another costly cancer drug, Nexavar, because most Indians cannot afford it.

The hearing involving Novartis starts on Wednesday. It is expected to last several weeks, with a verdict a month or two later.

Western firms see huge potential in India's rapidly growing economy but are wary of lax protection for intellectual property. They argue India is failing to recognise valuable medical innovation.

Their critics who include international aid groups and Indian generic drug manufacturers say a win for Novartis would jeopardise the supply of cheap medicine to hundreds of millions of people in India and around the world, since India is the world's biggest exporter of cheap generic drugs.

"The stakes are very high on both sides," said Leena Menghaney, a manager in New Delhi for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which relies on Indian-made generic drugs to treat AIDS and other diseases in Africa and many poor countries.

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