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Activists Occupy Novartis, Demand 'Drop the Gleevec Case'

February 23rd, 2012
Over 100 students, allies from Boston community groups, and people living with AIDS held a demonstration at the Novartis Research and Development Center in Cambridge on Wednesday. Protesters included undergraduate and medical students from Harvard University, Boston University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The protest was planned for the day before Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis’s annual shareholders meeting in Switzerland. Novartis is suing the Indian government, aiming to reinterpret India’s patent standards to block access to life-saving generic medicines.

In 2006, Novartis sued the Indian government after its request for a patent on its blockbuster cancer drug Gleevec was denied. Prior to 2005, India did not grant patents on medicines at all – a policy that fostered generic production of essential medicines then shipped to poor countries around the world. After a World Trade Organization agreement forced India to start granting patents in 2005, India passed a law titled Section 3(d) that requires pharmaceutical companies to demonstrate improvement in a drug’s efficacy before renewing a patent. This provision in the law has proven crucial in preventing pharmaceutical companies from simply making minute, inconsequential changes to its drug in order to extend the patent life – a process called “evergreening.” Novartis was unable to show that its tweaks to the basic compound in Gleevec had resulted in improved efficacy in treating cancer.

“Because Novartis is challenging Section 3(d) of Indian law altogether, seeking to establish a minimal standard of what efficacy requires, winning this case will set a dangerous precedent for the future of the entire generic industry. Without this protective provision in place, patents will be granted indiscriminately on trivial changes to existing medicines, thereby preventing generic production and allowing drug companies to charge high prices,” explained Brook Baker, policy analyst for Health Global Access Project (Health GAP).

India has historically proved vital in the global fight against AIDS. The country is home to Cipla, the company that first provided generically produced antiretroviral therapy for less than $1 per day. “But now, Novartis’s shortsighted corporate greed could have disastrous long-term consequences for nations reliant on generic medicines. India supplies 80% of AIDS medicines in the developing world as well as good quality generic equivalents for many other health needs. Poor patients will continue to need access to new, improved, and affordable medicines instead of having them blocked by successive patent monopolies,” said Darshali Vyas, from Harvard College and member of the Student Global AIDS Campaign.

Since Novartis initiated action against the Indian government, protests have been held around the world. On Wednesday, demonstrators in Cambridge stood in solidarity with activist groups in New York, Washington, India, and Switzerland. “By bringing this Silver Urn today to Novartis, we ask them to drop the Gleevec case, and to stop limiting access to medicines for poor people throughout the world." said Katrina Ciraldo, Boston University medical student and member of Occupy Boston’s Health Justice group.

Provided by Harvard University

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