The Indian Supreme Court has dismissed an attempt by pharmaceutical company Novartis to secure patent protection for an upgraded cancer treatment drug, which would have prevented others from legally copying and selling it cheaply. The court ruled that the upgrade was not enough of a development to justify further patent protection to the drug.
While health activists may claim a legal and moral victory, it will come at a high cost for India, pharmaceutical companies and those whose welfare will ultimately depend on research and development in the medical industry.
Pharmaceutical companies demand patent protection for their medicines so they have time to recoup the costs they incurred developing the drugs. This research and development is an expensive process that requires massive investment of time and money. Unless pharmaceutical companies are sure they can get a reasonable return on their investment, they will become increasingly reluctant to undertake the research necessary to improve human health. They simply will not be able to afford it.
In part, as a result of the ruling, Novartis has already indicated it will not undertake research in India. This will cost the country investment in a key industry and reduce its ability to tackle the health issues that most affect it.
There is no good business or legal argument for pharmaceutical companies to not be afforded the fullest protection possible for their intellectual property. Writers and musicians enjoy copyright protection, while technology and other companies are also afforded patents.
Activists insist that access to health services and treatment is a basic human right. They are correct, but it is not the responsibility of private companies to provide this at cost to their business. While they must accept some corporate social responsibility, it is the duty of governments to provide services to those in need. And India, more than most, has the resources to invest in research and development and to provide health services to its people — although it may have to show more necessary fiscal discipline in other areas.
The court ruling may make cheaper drugs available in the short term, but its true cost to health care in India and other countries is yet to be seen.