Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other global church leaders and campaigners have welcomed a ruling from the Madras High Court in Chennai that dismissed a challenge to the constitutionality of India's patent law from Swiss pharmaceutical giant, Novartis AG.
"This legal ruling reflects what we know in our hearts - that our society's priority must be people's health, not extra profits from patents for rich corporations," said Tutu in a 6 August 2007 statement released by the Geneva-based Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, which campaigns for trade justice.
Novartis had filed its petition with the high court after the Indian Patent Controller's Office refused to grant a patent for the company's cancer medicine, Glivec. The court rejected the Glivec patent application on the grounds that the medicine is a new form of an old medicine with a trivial change, and that this is something that cannot be patented under Indian law.
"We disagree with this ruling, however we likely will not appeal to the Supreme Court," said Ranjit Shahani, managing director of Novartis India Limited. In a statement, Novartis said it went ahead with the case because it believed it was "the right thing to do for patients. Effective patent systems ensure incentives are in place that stimulate long-term research and development efforts critical for medical progress."
Bishop Yvon Ambroise of the Commission for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India noted, "This ruling rightly upholds the principle that trivial changes made to a drug which do not make it more effective, do not warrant additional patent protection. The decision puts people's access to affordable medicines first, over additional corporate profits on non-essential changes."
The Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance worked to get church leaders to campaign against the Novartis case in India, and has claimed that the verdict is an important victory for global public health.
The Chennai High Court on 6 August said it had no jurisdiction over deciding whether Indian law contradicts international trade rules by denying patents for minor improvements of existing drugs. In rejecting Novartis' challenge to Indian patent law, the court noted it also had no jurisdiction to rule on the compliance of Indian law with the intellectual property rules of the World Trade Organization.
After the court's decision, campaigners said a different outcome could have affected the generic manufacture of thousands of other medicines in India. They said the country has made essential medicines available not only to those in India who cannot afford branded medicines but also to those in a similar position elsewhere in the world.
In welcoming the Indian court's decision, Bishop Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said, "Even more important than this decision on a particular case is the principle it sets. Patents must be granted in a way that balances public health and real innovation."
However, Paul Herrling, head of corporate research at Novartis, said, "It is clear there are inadequacies in Indian patent law that will have negative consequences for patients and public health in India." He added, "Medical progress occurs through incremental innovation. If Indian patent law does not recognise these important advances, patients will be denied new and better medicines."
[With grateful acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches]