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Feature Drug Industry

Patent wars: affordable medicines versus intellectual property rights

BMJ 2014; 348 doi: (Published 17 February 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g1533
  1. Jacqui Wise, freelance journalist
  1. 1London, UK
  1. jacquiyoung1{at}

India’s battle over patents is heating up, with campaigners fighting for access to affordable medicines pitted against the drug industry, which is fiercely protecting its intellectual property rights and profits. Jacqui Wise reports on how action there and in other developing countries is putting the whole patent system under scrutiny

The pharmaceutical industry is increasingly looking towards emerging markets, where demand for new drugs is rising rapidly alongside rates of chronic disease. But in recent years India, known as the “pharmacy of the developing world,” has led the battle for affordable drugs, using legal mechanisms to overturn patents so that its generic drug companies (which produce a fifth of the world’s generic drugs) can undercut the Western giants. Developing countries have followed India’s example, and battles over patent protection and prices have broken out from Indonesia to Brazil.

The fight echoes the one over access to treatments for HIV infection a decade or two ago, but it is now being fought over a far wider range of drugs with greater financial implications for Western drug companies.

In a series of high profile court cases, India has rejected several patent claims for cancer drugs and Roche decided in August not to pursue a patent application for its breast cancer drug trastuzumab (Herceptin) because it viewed it as a losing battle in India’s current intellectual property environment.1 2

Public health arguments

A key decision came in 2012, when India issued a compulsory licence for Bayer’s cancer drug sorafenib (Nexavar), allowing a local company Natco to produce a generic version.3 A compulsory licence allows a company to produce a patented product without the consent of the patent owner. Under the World Trade Organization’s trade related aspects of intellectual property rights (TRIPS) agreement countries are free to grant compulsory licences in the interest of public …

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