Novartis patent case threatens cheap drug supply: MSF

Supply of cheap, copycat drugs for the developing world could be badly threatened if Swiss firm Novartis wins a challenge to India's patent law, medical charity MSF said on Monday.

Novartis patent case threatens cheap drug supply: MSF
Andrew Hecht

The warning came as India’s Supreme Court was due to hear more arguments on Tuesday in an appeal by Novartis seeking patent protection for a newer version of its leukaemia drug Glivec — a case watched closely by global pharmaceutical firms.  

“If the patent law challenge is successful, it would have a devastating impact on access to affordable medicines across the developing world,” Leena Menghaney, India representative of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), told a news conference.  

Novartis is contesting the Indian patent office’s rejection of a patent application for the updated version of Glivec that is better absorbed by the body. MSF calls the improvement a “minor modification”.  

The drugmaker’s challenge goes to the heart of India’s patent act, which says a patent cannot be granted for an old drug unless changes make it significantly more therapeutically effective.  

The Supreme Court case is the final act in a lengthy legal battle between Novartis and patient rights groups in India, where local firms produce generic drugs at a fraction of the cost of brand-name originals.  

Indian generic versions of Glivec sell for 8,000 rupees ($174) for a month’s treatment compared with 120,000 rupees for the brand-name version, MSF said.  

Pharmaceutical multinationals argue that protecting patents is crucial to stimulating the research and development of new drugs.  

India, known as the “pharmacy to the developing world,” has long been a key provider of cheap generic medicines as it did not issue drug patents until 2005, when it was obliged to adhere to WTO intellectual property regulations.  

Now, India allows patents for new inventions after 1995 or for an updated drug showing much greater therapeutic efficacy. The base compound for Glivec was discovered in 1993.  

But India rejects applications for minor changes to existing drugs, which critics say are aimed at extending the life of original patent monopolies from their original 20 years — a practice known as “evergreening”.  

A spokesman for Novartis said on Monday the court’s decision was essential to the “viability of the innovative pharmaceutical business in this country”, adding that Glivec had received patent protection in nearly 40 countries.  

The cost difference between generic and brand name drugs is crucial for poor people around the world, MSF said, noting generics from India have pushed down prices for older anti-AIDS drugs by 99 percent.  

MSF buys 80 percent of its generic AIDS drugs from India and the humanitarian group said it is currently keeping 170,000 people in 19 countries alive on the treatment.  

“We couldn’t afford to treat them all without these generic drugs,” Joanna Keenan, spokesman for Geneva-based MSF, told AFP.  

If the court accepts Novartis’s arguments, the ruling could set a precedent allowing firms to acquire patents on modified versions of existing medicines — extending the time of their exclusive right to make drugs, MSF said.  

“It would create a scenario in which only the richest survive. The outcome of this case is literally a matter of life and death for people,” Loon Gangte, who heads an Indian group representing people living with HIV/AIDS, told AFP.

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Reader question: Can I put my Swiss health insurance on hold if I’m abroad?

Given how expensive health insurance premiums are in Switzerland, you may be tempted to suspend your policy while you are abroad. Is this possible?

Reader question: Can I put my Swiss health insurance on hold if I'm abroad?

Unlike the obligatory car insurance, which you can suspend temporarily by depositing your registration plates at the local motor vehicles office, rules pertaining to health insurance are much stricter.

As the Federal Office of Public Health explains it, “If you leave the country for a certain period to travel or study but do not take up residence abroad, you are still required to have [health] insurance in Switzerland”.

In other words, as long as you are a registered resident of Switzerland, regardless of your nationality or passport, you must keep your compulsory Swiss health insurance and pay your premiums. While you do this, you also remain covered against most medical emergencies while you travel.

However, rules are less stringent for supplemental health plans which can, in some cases, be put on hold, depending on the insurance provider, according to Switzerland’s Moneyland consumer website.

The only exception allowed for suspending the health insurance coverage is during a military or civil protection service which lasts more than 60 consecutive days.

“During these periods, the risks of illness and accident are covered by military insurance. Your health insurance provider will refund your premiums”, according to FOPH.

Under what circumstances can you cancel your Swiss health insurance?

Swiss law says you can cancel your insurance if you are moving abroad, either permanently for for a period exceeding three months.

If you do so, only claims for treatments given while you still lived in Switzerland will be paid by your insurance; any medical bills for treatment incurred after you officially leave will be denied.

These are the procedures for cancelling your compulsory health insurance if you leave the country under conditions mentioned above

To announce your departure abroad, you must send your insurance carrier a letter including your name, customer number or AVS/AHV number.

You must also include a certificate from your place of residence in Switzerland confirming that you have de-registered from your current address, as well as the date of your departure.

Note, however, that if your new destination is another Swiss community / canton, rather than a foreign country, your insurance can only be cancelled from the following calendar year and only if you present proof of having taken up a new policy with another company.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How to register your address in Switzerland

You can find out more information about this process here

If you suspend your health insurance for less than six years, you can reactivate it at a later date with the same company when you return to Switzerland.

READ MORE : What you should know about your Swiss health insurance before you go abroad