India’s Supreme Court has ruled that the patent sought by the Swiss company Novartis for the cancer drug Glivec (known as Gleevec in the USA) did not merit a separate patent because it did not differ sufficiently from earlier versions. Critics say that the majority of drug patents awarded in the USA are for tiny changes, often providing patients with few meaningful benefits while allowing drug companies to continue charging high prices for years beyond the original patent life. Patents usually guarantee exclusive sales for 20 years before other firms are allowed to make cheaper copies of the original drug. Glivec can cost as much as $70,000 a year, while Indian generic versions cost around $2,500 a year, and is an effective treatment for some forms of leukaemia and widely recognised as one of the most important medical discoveries in decades.
The ruling is warmly welcomed by the Initiative for Medicines, Access and Knowledge (a group based in New York that works on patent cases to foster access to drugs), Doctors Without Borders, and the Cancer Patients Aid Association. Meanwhile the pharmaceutical companies contend that the profits they reap are essential to their ability to develop and manufacture innovative medicines. However, the top drug companies listed in Fortune 500 (the annual ranking of America’s largest corporations) in 2001 averaged a net profit of 18.5% compared to the 3.3% average over all other sectors, and the only other sector that came close to this was commercial banking, with net profits of 13.5% (Angell, Marcia: The truth about the drug companies (NY: Random House, 2005))