Can you put a price tag on your health? Around the world, people are being denied life-saving medicines simply because they can’t afford the cost of medicine. But there is a growing movement to resist the power of the big pharmaceutical companies that currently control the global medicine market through monopolies and patents.You might have heard about the recent Supreme Court ruling that restricted the power of corporations to patent human genes. But another court ruling earlier this year in India could have an even deeper impact on the way patents affect access to medicine for the world’s poor. In a lawsuit brought by the drug giant Novartis,the Indian Supreme Court denied its application for a patent on a new version of a cancer drug
, Gleevec, on the grounds that the new formula was not unique enough to warrant a fresh patent. The landmark ruling basically opened the door for the mass production of generic versions Gleevec. This means India, which produces generic drugs to millions of patients worldwide (including much of the world’s HIV/AIDS medicines), can continue to export the generic to the Global South, for a tiny fraction of the price of the brand-name drug.
But already, multinationals in Europe and the U.S. are pushing for changes to India’s unique intellectual property laws, so they can further consolidate their monopolies and keep generics off the market. Two trade deals currently in the works, the Trans Pacific Partnership, which would cover much of the Pacific Rim, and the EU-India free trade agreement, would greatly expand the ability of foreign drug companies to trump domestic patent laws. By making it easier for companies to extend drug patents repeatedly, or use so-called “data exclusivity” and other intellectual property laws to maintain market control, these policies could sharply limit access to medicine for millions across the Global South who can’t pay the brand-name price for crucial medical treatments.
We spoke with Brook Baker of the advocacy group Health Global Access Projectto learn more about the future of generic medicines.
- Brook Baker is a professor at Northeastern University School of Law and Senior Policy Analyst for Health GAP.