A collection of public health groups is beginning a campaign to dissuade Indian doctors from prescribing drugs sold by a local unit of Novartis AG until the Swiss drug maker withdraws its appeal against a patent rejection on its blockbuster cancer drug Glivec.
In a nationwide campaign, which is seen as the first such targeted attack on a single drug maker, the groups want to mount pressure on the multinational corporation to retreat rather than keep “doggedly pursing their patent”.
The groups say the patent will increase treatment costs and stifle competition from cheaper substitutes made by Indian drug companies.
A patent application for Glivec was rejected by the Chennai Patent Office in January 2006—a decision that Novartis appealed against and is fighting at a patent appellate body after months of hearing at the Madras high court.
The groups will target all Novartis drugs in India, sales of which were at Rs592 crore in fiscal 2007. “We have already circulated the resolution in the states and more than 10,000 public health workers from various organizations at the ground level are going to be involved,” said Amit Sengupta, secretary of Jan Swasthya Abhiyan. Five groups are part of the campaign.
“We have spoken to four state bodies of the Indian Medical Association (IMA) and all of them have passed a resolution to boycott Novartis’ products. Appeals have been sent to 250 other local affiliates of IMA in Karnataka,” said Gopal Dabade, president of Drug Action Forum—Karnataka, a group that first started its lobbying against Novartis a few months ago. IMA is India’s apex body of doctors.
Novartis India Ltd defended its right to appeal against the patent rejection saying it recognizes the need of affordable medication and provides Glivec to 8,000 patients in India free already. But “our concern is with the non-recognition of intellectual property rights that ultimately help sustain and advance pharmaceutical R&D,” the company said in an email.
Doctors, meanwhile, are cautious in their response to the massive canvassing by the activists. “I’ll like to see the resolution, their arguments for the boycott and deliberate on it,” said IMA’s secretary general S.N. Mishra, who agreed that drugs should be cheaper but added any IMA resolutions would be “advisory” in nature and not binding. IMA has a membership of some 175,000 doctors.
Delhi-based diabetologist Anoop Mishra said: “Though such actions may be required, it will be a daunting and challenging task to unify doctors to fight for this particular issue.”