The hundreds of millions of people who suffer from chronic diseases like cancer and diabetes are mostly unaware that a drug war is raging over the medications that can save their lives. A recent appeals court ruling in India that turned down a patent bid by the Swiss pharmaceutical behemoth Novartis was the latest shot and it was in their favour. But there are many more battles looming that put a cloud of uncertainty over the health and well-being of sufferers, many of them poor. Instead of turning to costly legal and trade rows, companies and governments should be looking to agreements and deals.
These are, after all, life and death issues. Novartis has threatened to not release new drugs in India as a result of the Supreme Court's decision in its seven-year case. The firm wanted patent protection for the most recent formulation of its top-selling leukaemia treatment Glivec, arguing that significant improvements had been made. The court upheld previous rulings, saying that it was only a new form of an older medicine whose patent had expired.
The implications go far beyond making a single cancer therapeutic available. India is the world's biggest producer of low-cost generic drugs, its high market share being based on laws restricting pharmaceutical companies from seeking new patents for making minor modifications to products. Were Novartis to have won its case, the country's generic drugs industry would have been affected. Patients in developing nations, who rely on the cheap versions of life-saving medications, would suffer.
Novartis' main argument, as articulated on its website, was that "safeguarding incentives for innovation through the granting of patents leads to better medicines for patients". In principle, there is no questioning such a position. Drug development is a risky and expensive business and patent protection is necessary to recoup the prohibitive costs. But there has to be genuine innovation if medical breakthroughs are to come about; patent protection has to be reserved for those exceptional occasions.
Intellectual property rights have to be protected. Patent rules have to be vigorously enforced, no matter what the country. But the system must never be abused in such a way that it limits the availability of life-saving drugs to the poor. Drug wars and holding back treatments is no way forward. Instead, there has to be innovation, price flexibility and deal-making.