At The Indian IPR Front: ‘Ground Control, There’s No Major Storm’

The incessant pressure of the developing countries on India, from 2005 to date, to include various restrictive conditions in the Indian Patents Act 2005, still continue. This demand spans across the inclusion of even those provisions, which many experts term as TRIPS-Plus, as these are not required by the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement. More interestingly, the pressure group also insists on the simultaneous deletion or dilution of some existing important provisions in the statute that guarantee public health interest of the nation.

This pressure is expected to mount in the G20 summit of September 4-5, which is now being held in China.

Refreshingly, on 30 August 2016, just ahead of this summit, the eminent economist Dr. Arvind Panagariya, who is also the incumbent Vice Chairman of Niti Aayog of India, and India’s Sherpa at the G20 summit reiterated, as follows, in an interview to a leading National English Business Daily:

“India has strongly opposed the language of the draft on Intellectual Property Protection (IPR) to be taken up at the upcoming G20 meeting in Beijing.”

In the interview, having re-emphasized the critical point that “there is a certain flexibility that we have under the TRIPS agreement and anything that dilutes that flexibility is not acceptable to India,” Dr. Panagariya clearly reaffirmed, yet again that ‘Indian IPR laws and policies are absolutely TRIPS compliant’.

This statement indeed sends a very positive signal to all on the ground, regarding the robust position maintained by the Government, to ward off any move by the overseas vested business interest to derail the flexibility that Indian well-balanced patent regime offers today, not just for public health, but also to foster innovation ecosystem in the country.

At the same time, India’s Sherpa at G20 summit also reportedly clarified that the IPR framework being proposed at the G20, in its strictest sense, cannot be construed as TRIPS-Plus. Nevertheless, some language used in the proposed G20 draft could be subject to interpretation, and India feels that it should not leave any room for ambiguity that has the potential to stretch this demand further, as we move on.

According to Dr. Panagariya: “Right now, these documents have some language where people in the Department of Industrial Policy & Promotion (DIPP) feel that it impinges a bit. We have to fight it out at the summit.”

The basis of apprehension:

There are many reasons for the recent apprehension that India may buckle under the US pressure to dilute its IP laws and policies. One of the reasons could well be a possibility that India has come to an understanding with USTR in this area.

An interesting article published in the ‘spicyip’ on March 14, 2016 also captured this scenario pretty well. I am reproducing below in verbatim a paragraph of this paper, just as an example:

“Last month, the Indian government privately assured the US-India Business Council (“USIBC’’) that it would not invoke compulsory licensing for commercial purposes, as reported in their submissions (available here) to the United States Trade Representative (“USTR”) for the 2016 Special 301 Review. The USIBIC stated that it would be “further encouraged” if the government of India were to make a public commitment, or a written declaration to only issue compulsory licenses in the event of public health emergencies, and not for commercial purposes. This, in their eyes, would “greatly enhance legal certainty for innovative industries”. While such a private assurance doesn’t give rise to any legal commitments, it may well be indicative of a policy shift.”

Prior to this, among many others, a March 3, 2016 ‘The Wire’ report captioned “India Assures the US it Will Not Issue Compulsory Licenses on Medicines”, also raised the same red flag.

The pressure continues even post engagement:

Be that as it may, America has been, repeatedly, raising its concerns over India’s patent regime, driven by its powerful pharma lobby groups.

To keep the kettle boiling, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) in its 2016 Special 301 Report released this year on April 12, continued to keep India, along with 11 countries, on the Priority Watch List (PWL) for the current year.

USTR reportedly expressed serious concern about Indian IP policies stating that the regime apparently ‘favor’ indigenous manufacturing or Indian innovators. It also alleged that such direction ‘damages’ the patent infrastructure not just in India, but across the world.

It is believed by many that the Special 301 Report is, in fact, a formal posturing of the country on their unilateral IP related business hurdles for the year, exhibiting the power to implement unilateral trade sanctions when the US demands are not met.

In that context, the 2016 Special 301 Report caught many by surprise, as the Indian ‘IPR Think Tank’ (a body of the Union Government-selected experts) was also working closely with the United States to identify and address their issues of concern, such as, patent system, copyright infringement, trademark and counterfeiting, among others.

At that time, this discussion was possibly in its final stage as, just a month after, on May 12, 2016, the Union Cabinet approved the National Intellectual Property Rights Policy (IPR) of India, as proposed by the ‘Think Tank’, in consultation with, among others, especially the United States, which reportedly expressed its overall satisfaction with the final IPR policy.

Key concerns:

From the pharma industry perspective, the key IP concerns are centered, primarily, in the following three areas, besides a few others:

  • Patentability
  • Compulsory Licensing (CL)
  • Data Exclusivity

I would, therefore, concentrate briefly on these three areas to argue how reasonable is the Indian Patents Act 2005 to create a win-win situation both for the patients and the industry while fostering pharma innovation in the country.

Patentability:

One of their key concerns on patentability, revolves round an important provision in the statute – Section 3 (d).

Pharma Multinational Corporations (MNCs), and their trade associations have been going overboard, since long, to lobby hard to make all concerned believe that section 3 (d) is a stumbling block for pharma innovation, as it does not allow patent protection on known chemical substances lacking any significant improvement in clinical efficacy.

This provision of the statute prevents ever-greening of patents with frivolous incremental innovation. Consequently, it blocks the possibility of pricing such ‘me too’ new molecules, exorbitantly, and persuading the prescribers of the existing molecule switching over to the new brand, backed by contentious marketing campaigns, adversely impacting affordability and access to the majority of the patients in India.

Notwithstanding the shrill voices of vested interests, Section 3 (d) has been upheld by the Supreme Court of India in the famous Glivec case of Novartis against Cipla.

The Submission of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) to USTR for the Review of ‘2016 Special 301 Report’, categorically also states that the Indian Patent Act prescribes a higher threshold on inventive step for medicines, which is in keeping with the TRIPS Agreement, Paris Convention and the Doha Declaration. Hence, Section 3 (d) is sound in terms of the TRIPS, Public policy and Health policy.

Compulsory License (CL):

Besides the hard fact that India has, so far, granted just one CL in a span of more than the last ten years, the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement related public health clearly provides the flexibility to all its member states to decide on the necessary grounds for granting CL. It is noteworthy that for public health interest, TRIPS flexibilities for CL has been used even by the developed countries, such as, Canada, United States and Germany, in the not too distant past.

Data exclusivity:

The terminologies ‘Data Exclusivity’ and ‘Data Protection’ are quite often used interchangeably by many, creating a great deal of confusion on the subject. However, in a true sense these are quite different issues having a critical impact on the public health interest of a nation.

In an article published in ‘ipHandbook’, titled “Data Protection and Data Exclusivity in Pharmaceuticals and Agrochemicals”, the author Charles Clift, a former Secretary, Commission on Intellectual Property Rights, Innovation and Public Health, World Health Organization; differentiated these two terminologies as follows:

Data Protection (DP): Protection of commercially valuable data held by the drug regulator against disclosure and unfair commercial use.

Data Exclusivity (DE): A time bound form of Intellectual Property (IP) protection that seeks to allow companies recouping the cost of investment in producing data required by the regulatory authority.

According to Charles Clift, Article 39.3 only articulates widely accepted trade secret and unfair competition law, and is not an invitation to create new IP rights, per se, for test data. Nor does it prevent outside parties from relying on the test data submitted by an originator, except in case of unfair commercial practices.

Some developed countries, such as the United States and the European Union have argued that Article 39.3 of TRIPS requires countries to create a regime of DE, which is a new form of time-limited IP protection. However, it is worth noting that in both these countries DE regime was adopted prior to the TRIPS Agreement. Hence, many experts construe such approaches and pressure, thus created for DE, as ‘TRIPS-Plus’.

In its new IPR Policy, India has successfully resisted the demands of TRIPs-Plus provisions, such as, data exclusivity, patent linkage and patent-term extension.

Even the draft IPR policy had reiterated that India accepts: “Protection of undisclosed information not extending to data exclusivity.”

Any near-term possibility of a change in the statute?

While the new IPR Policy of India focuses on consolidating institutional mechanisms to create a robust IPR ecosystem in the country, besides resolving some pressing issues, such as, expediting approval processes involving patents or trademarks, it does not indicate any possible change in the important provisions in the Patents Act 2005, including the much talked about Section 3 (d) and compulsory licensing, despite concerns expressed by the US and pharma companies.

Moreover, a May 13, 2016 Press Trust of India (PTI) report on the Union Cabinet approval of Indian IPR Policy quoted a Government official, as follows, negating the apprehensions that the government may yield to the pressure of developed countries with regard to its IR regime:

“India will never go beyond its current commitments in the TRIPS. Section 3 (d), patent linkage, data exclusivity and compulsory licensing are red lines.”

On the same day and in the same context, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley also reportedly stressed that India’s IPR policies are TRIPS-compliant and encourage invention of life-saving drugs, while at the same time, “we must also be conscious of the need to make it available at a reasonable cost so that drug cost does not become prohibitive as has become in some parts of the world”, he articulated, unambiguously.

Conclusion:

Despite all these developments, reiterations and interpretations, a lurking fear on India’s diluting the current patent regime of the nation was refusing to die down in the country.

Many experts were also quite apprehensive about what would be India’s stand on IP in the G 20 summit on September 4-5, currently being held in China.

Is it, then, just a storm in a tea cup on the ground?

This is not a very easy question to answer, though, as many industry watchers sense. Nonetheless, yet another emphatic statement on the subject coming from a top Government echelon and none other than Dr. Arvind Panagariya, the Vice Chairman of Niti Aayog and India’s Sherpa at G20 summit, possibly sends a clear message, at least for now, to all those holding ground in the Indian IPR front:

‘Ground Control, There’s No Major Storm’.

By: Tapan J. Ray 

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion. 

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