The fight over drug patents in India is quickly ratcheting up even as other countries are looking at new twists on the model for getting their hands on cheaper drugs.
India's BDR Pharmaceuticals International has asked the Indian patent office to give it a compulsory license for a generic version of the Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) cancer drug Sprycel (dasatinib), the Economic Times reports. That comes just a week after some U.S. Congress members said if India is going to continue to play loose with patent protections, maybe the U.S. needs to rethink an exemption for India on import duties that comes up for renewal in July.
Earlier this month the Indian Supreme Court upheld the country's first compulsory license granted last year to Natco Pharma to make a generic version of Bayer's kidney cancer drug Nexavar. It justified the decision to override the patent on price. Natco began selling Nexavar for $170 a month, compared with Bayer's $5,000-a-month price. Cipla, another Indian generics maker, jumped right in as well, offering it at $130 a month. The generics makers pay Bayer a small royalty.
Others companies have also seen patents breached. Pfizer ($PFE) suffered the loss of IP protections on its cancer drug Sutent, and Roche's ($RHHBY) patent coverage on the hepatitis C treatment Pegasys has been revoked there. Novartis ($NVS) is still fighting for patent protection on its blood cancer treatment Gleevec. And the Indian government has moved toward compulsory licenses on Roche's Herceptin.
Proponents of the aggressive attacks on patents say it is the only way for poor people in emerging countries to have a chance of getting the same lifesaving treatments that others in the world enjoy. It is an argument that has traveled well. China granted itself compulsory licensing rights last year but has yet to exercise them. Now a lobbying group is pushing Greece to adopt a compulsory license law, but not so Greek companies could make generics. The idea is that once the patents are neutralized, Greece could import cheap generics from other countries, like India.
Greece, of course, is in the midst of a financial crisis leading to unpaid bills for its drug imports, which account for most of its drug use. Some Greeks are finding it impossible to find drugs they had been taking for critical illnesses, like cancer. The U.S.-based lobbying group Essential Inventions is using that as the rationale for urging Greece to go the compulsory-license route, the Financial Times reports: "We can't have a situation where people suffering because of the financial crisis are worse off within Europe than outside."
Drug companies argue that it is the responsibility of governments in India and elsewhere to find ways to make drugs available to their citizens and not expect drugmakers to underwrite the cost. Many emerging countries have no public health insurance programs. India has started making some drugs available to the the poor, but that has not slowed the push for more compulsory licenses.