India strips patent from Roche's hep C drug Pegasys

No question, Big Pharma is feeling a bit persecuted in India these days. And now, multinational drugmakers have one more reason to fear. The country's patent appeals board has yanked Roche's ($RHHBY) patent on Pegasys, a hepatitis C drug that's been on the market there since 2006.

Some Indian officials say it's all about access. Allowing generic competition will bring down the price of treating hepatitis C, they say. Even discounted Pegasys treatment costs about 314,500 rupees, or about $5,765, patient advocates said after the announcement.

Roche has another point of view, of course. The company is still reviewing the patent decision, a spokesman told The Wall Street Journal. But, he said, "We remain concerned that a policy of neglect for patent rules would inhibit research into future treatments."

Obviously, the list of IP threats just keeps growing longer. The Indian government's in-your-face compulsory license on Bayer's cancer drug Nexavar may be the most extreme example. But Novartis ($NVS) wins the prize for persistence: For years, it has been fighting for a patent on its blood cancer drug Gleevec (sold as Glivec in India).

And the blows have multiplied quickly in recent months. This latest move against Pegasys is the third strike against foreign drugmakers since mid-September. Last month, Pfizer ($PFE) lost an Indian patent on its cancer treatment Sutent, when an official deemed it uninventive "and hence not patentable." And in September, an Indian court upheld Roche's Tarceva patent--but, perhaps more importantly, determined that Cipla's copycat version didn't infringe it.

Once keen to bring in foreign pharma investment, the Indian government appears to be having second thoughts. Big Pharma's interest in the market increased exponentially when new IP protections were put in place in 2005. And with emerging markets growing faster than the U.S. and Europe, many companies have invested heavily in the country, aiming to capture some of that growth. But if IP security continues to erode, drugmakers may have to rethink their Indian ambitions.

- read the WSJ piece (sub. req.)