News Analysis: Big Pharma cries foul upon India court decision
“What is happening in the United States is that a lot of money is being wasted on new forms of old drugs,” Mr. Grover said. Because of Monday’s ruling, “that will not happen in India.”
In the United States, companies can get a new patent for a drug by altering its formula or changing its dosage. The companies contend that even minor improvements in medicines — changing a pill dosage to once a day instead of twice a day — can have a significant impact on patient wellness. But critics say a majority of drug patents given in the United States are for tiny changes that often provide patients few meaningful benefits but allow drug companies to continue charging high prices for years beyond the original patent life.
They point to AstraZeneca, for example, which extended for years its franchise around the huge-selling heartburn pill Prilosec by slightly altering the chemical structure and renaming the medicine Nexium. Amgen has won so many patents on its expensive erythropoietin-stimulating drugs that the company has maintained exclusive sales rights for 24 years, double the usual period. A result of this practice is that the United States pays the highest drug prices in the world, prices that only a tiny fraction could afford in India, where more than two-thirds of the population lives on less than $2 a day.
While advocates for the pharmaceutical industry argue that fairly liberal rules on patents spur innovation, a growing number of countries are questioning why they should pay high prices for new drugs. Argentina and the Philippines have passed laws similar to the one enacted in India, placing strict limits on patents. And Brazil and Thailand have been issuing compulsory licenses for AIDS drugs for years under multilateral agreements that allow such actions on public health grounds.
As the economies of emerging markets grow, the countries’ refusal to pay higher premiums for newer drugs could significantly reduce the money needed for innovation. The drug industry makes more than a third of its sales in the United States, a dependence that many in the industry fear is unsustainable, especially since sales of prescription drugs actually dropped in the United States in 2012, according to the research firm IMS Health. Sales in emerging markets like Brazil and China are expected to account for 30 percent of global pharmaceutical spending by 2016, up from 20 percent in 2011, according to IMS Health.
The United States government has become increasingly insistent in recent years that other countries adopt far more stringent patent protection rules, with the result that poorer patients often lose access to cheap generic copies of medicines when their governments undertake trade agreements with the United States. Washington is currently negotiating the terms of a new Pacific Rim trade agreement, called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which might be completed later this year. The pharmaceutical industry has lobbied the United States to require other countries to enforce tougher patent restrictions, although the details are still being worked out.
Gardiner Harris reported from New Delhi, and Katie Thomas from New York.
A version of this article appeared in print on April 2, 2013, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Low-Cost Drugs In Poor Nations Get Lift in Court.
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