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Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

USTR's move to keep India on IP watch list could hit covid-drug access

Médecins Sans Frontières’ Access Campaign says the Special 301 Report threatens countries like India with sanctions at the behest of pharmaceutical corporations and is aimed at blocking more affordable generic versions of drugs

NEW DELHI : The US Trade Representative's (USTR) move to keep India on the priority watch list for patenting norms can be used to block access for affordable drugs against covid-19, said health activists.

The USTR late Wednesday released its Special 301 Report, in which it continued to place India on the 'Priority Watch List' for lack of sufficient improvement to its intellectual property framework. The report specifically highlighted the problematic section 3(d) of India’s patent law, which does not allow for provision of patents for incremental innovation.

“In the pharmaceutical sector, Section 3(d) of the India Patents Act also remains problematic. One implication of its restriction on patent-eligible subject matter is the failure to incentivize innovation that would lead to the development of improvements with benefits for Indian patients," the USTR said in its report.

Médecins Sans Frontières’ (MSF) Access Campaign, also known as Doctors Without Borders, said that the Special 301 Report threatens countries like India with sanctions at the behest of pharmaceutical corporations and is aimed at blocking more affordable generic versions of medicines and keep their prices high even in the middle of the pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic brings to light how intellectual property rules and provisions are an impediment to people’s access to treatment, diagnostics, and vaccines globally. As a consequence, a growing number of countries—from Chile to Germany—have indicated that they are prepared to issue compulsory licenses to overcome monopoly control over medical tools to address the pandemic," MSF Access Campaign said in a statement.

The global health activist group added that the US government should not consider punishing countries for using the legal option of compulsory licensing, which allows generic drugmakers to produce a patented product without having to take permission from the patent holder.

While many countries are considering compulsory licensing, especially if promising drugs like Gilead Sciences Inc’s remdesivir successfully complete clinical trials, India has been reluctant to do so.

Mint on Tuesday reported that the Indian government is counting on California-based Gilead to voluntarily issue generic licences for the antiviral drug and may not press the company for compulsory licensing, after having burnt its fingers with Gilead’s hepatitis C drug Sovaldi back in 2015.

Then, an initial rejection of Gilead’s patent application on grounds that it was not a significant improvement over an earlier compound developed by another firm became a flashpoint in India-US relations.

Other activists say that India should not succumb to US pressure tactics and should continue with its stringent norms for getting patents for medicines, especially during this time of a pandemic.

“India’s policy-makers should not be deterred by this kind of unilateral pressure tactics by the US, and this has also no legal backing under the international trade norms. The only action they could have taken legally was the removal of India from GSP, which they have already done. So India has nothing to lose now," K.M. Gopakumar, legal advisor to the Third World Network, an international non-profit research and advocacy organisation.

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