Controversy over the extent to which private pharmaceutical interests can creep into the debates around public good has arisen recently here in India. A technical expert committee constituted by the government of India to look into the patent laws with respect to new pharmaceuticals and micro-organisms recently withdrew its report.
While lawyers and legal experts debate TRIPs compliance of new patents, the Mashelkar report and its endorsement by some multinational companies raises important issues with respect to public vs private interests, but also what counts as technological innovation. While the legal front is fighting the thin line of control between a new chemical entity and a new medical entity, the social and public health risk of leaving the field of innovation to patentability and market forces needs a substantial debate.
Raising similar issues and responding to the controversy, the Norwegian minister for international development – including Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres) and AIDS/HIV advocacy groups – have pleaded with the Norwegian multinational Novartis to withdraw its case against Indian patent law (which is at the heart of the controversy) on humanitarian grounds. If this case goes in Novartis’ favour, it would prove detrimental to the access of cheap AID/HIV drugs in Africa and Asia.
In yet another development related to this case, the former president Bill Clinton “forcefully” endorsed Brazil and Thailand’s decisions to break patents held by the US pharmaceutical companies in the interests of thousands of AIDS/HIV patients.
What this controversy in India and associated statements by the world leaders points at is that the international patent law clearly contradicts the interests and well being of thousands of individuals in need of urgent medical care.