Médecins Sans Frontières is urging the Indian government to not relax its drug patent laws and keep the country as a source of cheap medicines.

India currently sets a high bar for what deserves a patent, which has resulted in large amounts of generic competition and low drug prices compared to other countries. One of the most recent high profile examples is Gilead’s hepatitis C drug Sovaldi (sofosbuvir), which was denied a patent in the country, leading to Gilead licensing it to generic manufacturers.

However, the country is currently in negotiations with Japan for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RECP) trade agreement, which contains proposals that could make it easier for pharma firms to get patents for their medicines. 

Companies could be allowed to extend their exclusivity by making modifications to existing treatments, and India’s drug regulator, the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO), could be prevented from registering generic drugs unless clinical trials are replicated. 

Negotiations with EU countries and the US have also contained similar proposals.

Message of support

“As doctors who have been relying on affordable medicines and vaccines made in India to do our work, we cannot afford to stand by silently as the tap of life-saving drugs gets turned off for people in our projects and beyond”, says Joanne Liu, international president of MSF. “We want to send India a strong message of support as the world is watching anxiously to make sure it remains the pharmacy of the developing world.”

The charity says that more than 80% of the medicines it uses to treat over 200,000 people with HIV are Indian generics, and that it sources other essential medicines from India to treat diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria.

Novartis took the Indian government to court in 2006 after it was denied a patent for its cancer drug Glivec (imatinib), but lost its challenge in a landmark ruling in April 2013.