Does the Landmark Glivec Judgment Discourage Innovation in India?

No, I do not think so. The 112 pages well articulated judgment of the Supreme Court of India delivered on April 1, 2013, does not even remotely discourage innovation in India, including much talked about ‘incremental innovation’. This landmark judgment reconfirms the rules of the game for pharmaceutical innovation, as captured in the Indian Patents Act 2005.

When one reads the judgment, point 191 in page number 95 very clearly states as follows:

“191. We have held that the subject product, the beta crystalline form of Imatinib Mesylate, does not qualify the test of Section 3(d) of the Act but that is not to say that Section 3(d) bars patent protection for all incremental inventions of chemical and pharmaceutical substances. It will be a grave mistake to read this judgment to mean that section 3(d) was amended with the intent to undo the fundamental change brought in the patent regime by deletion of section 5 from the Parent Act. That is not said in this judgment.”

Thus all ‘incremental innovations’, which some people always paint with a general broad brush of ‘evergreening’, should no longer be a taboo in India. The judgment just says that Glivec is not patentable as per Section 3(d) of Indian Patents Act based on the data provided and arguments of Novartis.

To me, the judgment does also not signal that no more Glivec like case will come to the Supreme Court in future. It vindicated inclusion of Section 3(d) in the amended Indian Patents Act 2005.

It is interesting to note that honorable Supreme Court itself used the terminology of ‘incremental innovation’ for such cases.

That said, I find it extremely complex to imagine what would have happened, if the judgment had gone the opposite way.

A critical point to ponder:

The judgment will also mean that all those products, having valid product patents abroad, if fail to meet the requirements of Section 3(d), will not be patentable in India, enabling introduction of their generic equivalents much sooner in the country and at the same time causing a nightmarish situation for their innovators.

However, this again, in no way, is an outcome of this judgement or a new development, as stated above. It is just vindication of the intent behind inclusion of Section 3(d) in the amended Indian Patents Act, when it was enacted by the Parliament of India in 2005.

Patentability of ‘Incremental Innovations’ in India:

Patentability criteria for any ‘incremental innovations’ has been defined in the Section 3(d) of the Indian statute as follows:

“The mere discovery of a new form of a known substance which does not result in the enhancement of the known efficacy of that substance or the mere discovery of any new property or new use for a known substance or of the mere use of a known process, machine or apparatus unless such known process results in a new product or employs at least one new reactant.

Explanation: For the purposes of this clause, salts, esters, ethers, polymorphs, metabolites, pure form, particle size isomers, mixtures of isomers, complexes, combinations and other derivatives of known substance shall be considered to be the same substance, unless they differ significantly in properties with regard to efficacy.

Supreme Court interpretation of the term “Efficacy” in Section 3(d): 

The Honorable Supreme Court in page 90 of its above order under point 180 stated that in case of medicines, efficacy can only be “therapeutic efficacy”, which must be judged strictly and narrowly. The interpretation goes as follows:

180. “What is “efficacy”? Efficacy means ‘the ability to produce a desired or intended result’. Hence, the test of efficacy in the context of section 3(d) would be different, depending upon the result the product under consideration is desired or intended to produce. In other words, the test of efficacy would depend upon the function, utility or the purpose of the product under consideration. Therefore, in the case of a medicine that claims to cure a disease, the test of efficacy can only be “therapeutic efficacy”.

The Honorable Court under the same point 180 further elaborated:

“With regard to the genesis of section 3(d), and more particularly the circumstances in which section 3(d) was amended to make it even more constrictive than before, we have no doubt that the “therapeutic efficacy” of a medicine must be judged strictly and narrowly…Further, the explanation requires the derivative to ‘differ significantly in properties with regard to efficacy’. What is evident, therefore, is that not all advantageous or beneficial properties are relevant, but only such properties that directly relate to efficacy, which in case of medicine, as seen above, is its therapeutic efficacy.” 

Based on this interpretation of Section 3(d), the Honorable Supreme Court of India ordered that Glivec does not fulfill the required criteria of the statute.

The rationale behind Section 3(d):

A report on ‘Patentability of the incremental innovation’ indicates that the policy makers keeping the following points in mind formulated the Indian Patents Act 2005:

  • The strict standards of patentability as envisaged by TRIPS pose a challenge to India’s pharmaceutical industry, whose success depended on the ability to produce generic drugs at much cheaper prices than their patented equivalents.
  • A stringent patent system would severely curtail access to expensive life saving drugs to a large number of populations in India.
  • Grant of a product patents should be restricted only to “genuine innovations” and those “incremental innovations” on existing medicines, which will be able to demonstrate significantly increased efficacy over the original drug.

IPA challenges: 86 pharmaceutical patents granted by IPO fall under Section 3(d):

study by the ‘Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance (IPA)’ indicates that 86 pharmaceutical patents granted by the IPO post 2005 are not breakthrough inventions but only minor variations of existing pharmaceutical products and demanded re-examination of them.

Possible implications to IPA challenge:

If the argument, as expressed above in the IPA study, is true by any stretch of imagination, in that case, there exists a theoretical possibility of at least 86 already granted product patents to get revoked. This will invite again another nightmarish situation for innovators.

Examples of revocation of patents in India:

On November 26, 2012, the Intellectual Property Appellate Board (IPAB) reportedly denied patent protection for AstraZeneca’s anti-cancer drug Gefitinib on the ground that the molecule lacked invention.

The report also states that AstraZeneca suffered its first setback on Gefitinib in June 2006, when the Indian generic company Natco Pharma opposed the initial patent application filed by the global major in a pre-grant opposition. Later on, another local company, GM Pharma, joined Natco in November 2006.

After accepting the pre-grant opposition by the two Indian companies, the Indian Patent office (IPO) in March 2007 rejected the patent application for Gefitinib citing ‘known prior use’ of the drug. AstraZeneca contested the order through a review petition, which was dismissed in May 2011.

Prior to this, on November 2, 2012 the IPAB revoked the patent of Pegasys (Peginterferon alfa-2a) – the hepatitis C drug of the global pharmaceutical giant Roche.

Though Roche was granted a patent for Pegasys by the Indian Patent Office (IPO) in 2006, this was subsequently contested by a post-grant challenge by the large Indian pharma player – Wockhardt and the NGO Sankalp Rehabilitation Trust (SRT) on the ground that Pegasys is neither a “novel” product nor did it demonstrate ‘inventiveness’, as required by Section 3(d) of Patents Act of India 2005.

It is worth noting, although the IPO had rejected the patent challenges by Wockhardt and SRT in 2009, IPAB reversed IPO’s decision revoking the patent of Pegasys.

Similarly the patent for liver and kidney cancer drug of Pfizer – Sutent (Sunitinib) granted by IPO in 2007, was revoked by the IPAB in October, 2012 after a post grant challenge by Cipla and Natco Pharma on the ground that the claimed ‘invention’ does not involve inventive steps.

Patent challenges under section 3(d) may come up even more frequently in future:

Some observers in this field have expressed, although ‘public health interest’ is the primary objective for having Section 3(d) in the Indian Patents Act 2005, many generic companies, both local and global, have already started exploiting this provision as a part of their ‘business strategy’ to improve business performance in India, especially when an  injunction is usually not being granted by the honorable Courts for such cases on public health interest ground.

Thus, as stated above, there is likely to be many more cases like, Glivec coming before the Supreme Court in the years ahead.

Another related development of the last week:

It has been reported that American pharma major MSD has last week filed a suit in the Delhi High Court against Indian pharma major – Glenmark for alleged patent violation of its leading anti-diabetic drugs Januvia and Janumet. In this case also no interim injunction has reportedly been granted to MSD by the Honorable Delhi High Court.

Glenmark has stated through a media report, “It is a responsible company and has launched the products after due diligence and research.” The company has also announced that their version of the molecule named Zita and Zita Met will be available to patients at a 20 percent discount to MSD’s price.

Hence, once again, the Indian court to decide, the balance of justice would now point to which direction.

Government has no role to play – patent challenge is a legal process across the world:

The proponents of ‘no change required in the Section 3(d)’ argue, ‘Patent Challenge’ is a legal process all over the world, the Government has hardly got any role to play in settling such disputes. The law should be allowed to take its own course for all disputes related to the Patents Act of the country, including Section 3(d).

They also opine that India must be allowed to follow the law of justice without casting aspersions on the knowledge and biases of the Indian judiciary for vested interests.

That said, there is certainly an urgent need to add speed to this legal process by setting up ‘Fast-track Courts’ for resolving all Intellectual Property (IP) related disputes in a time bound manner.

Arguments against Section 3(d):

Opposition to the Section 3(d) counter-argues by saying, this is a critical period for India to help fostering an appropriate ecosystem for innovation in the country. This group emphasizes, “Providing the right incentives for incremental pharmaceutical innovation can move India forward on this path and encourage the development of drug products that meet the needs of Indian patients. Reforming Section 3(d) to encourage and protect incremental pharmaceutical innovation would create such incentives and help India become a true powerhouse of innovation.”

Another group says that the main reason in favor of Section 3(d) being the provision will prevent grant of frivolous patents, the ultimate fallout of which will result in limited access to these drugs due to high price, is rather irrelevant today. This, they point out, is mainly because the Government is now actively mulling a structured mechanism of price negotiation for all patented drugs to improve their access to patients in India.

Importance of ‘Incremental Innovation’ in India:

Incremental innovations are indeed very important for the country and have been benefiting the patients immensely over decades, across the world.

A report titled, “The Value Of Incremental Pharmaceutical Innovation” highlighted as follows:

  • As per the National Knowledge Commission, while 37.3% of Indian companies introduced breakthrough innovations in recent years, no fewer than 76.4% introduced incremental innovations.
  • 60 percent of the drugs on the World health Organization’s essential Drug list reflect incremental improvements over older drugs.

The report indicates some of the benefits of ‘Incremental Pharmaceutical Innovation’ for India as follows:

  1. Improved quality of drug products, including products that are better suited to India’s climate.
  2. Development of treatments for diseases that are prevalent in India for which new drug discovery is currently limited or otherwise inadequate.
  3. Increasing likelihood that for every therapeutic class, there is a treatment to which an Indian patient will respond.
  4. Development of the R&D capacity and expertise
 of Indian pharmaceutical companies.
  5. Reduction of healthcare and other social costs in India through improved drug quality and selection.
  6. Increased access to medicine as a result of price competition.

The study concluded by saying that Section 3(d) potentially precludes the patenting of hundreds of incremental pharmaceutical innovations that Indian companies are attempting to patent and commercialize outside India.

There are umpteen numbers of examples that can ably demonstrate, ‘incremental innovation’ of the pharmaceutical innovators help significantly improving the efficacy and safety of existing drugs. All such innovations should in no way be considered “frivolous” as they have very substantial and positive impact in improving conditions of the ailing patients.

Be that as it may, the Supreme Court judgment has categorically mentioned that all ‘Incremental innovations’ should conform to the requirement of the Section 3(d) of the statute.

West should learn from India’s high patent standards”

An article appeared just yesterday written by a well-regarded Indian economist recommended, “West should learn from India’s high patent standards”. It observed that    over-liberal patent system of the West is now broken and it should learn from India’s much tougher patent system.

Patent monopolies needs to be given only for genuine innovations, as defined in the Indian Patents Act 2005, where the public benefits clearly exceed the monopoly cost.

The author concluded by saying, “This means setting a high bar for innovation. High standards are desirable for patents, as for everything else.”

View of the Glivec inventor: 

In another interview titled, “If you erode patents, where will innovations come from?” Dr Brian Druker, whose work resulted in the development of Glivec, re-emphasizing the need for R&D by the pharmaceutical industry, commented,  “I’m going to stay away from the legal judgment … but as a physician, I do recognize that the advances will come from new products, not modifications.

Are discordant voices out of step with time?

The interpretation of the Section 3(d) of the statute by the Honorable Supreme Court of India is the last word for all, despite a few voices of discord from within and mostly outside India. These voices, many would reckon, could well be out of step with time, especially in relatively fast growing, modern, independent, thinking and assertive young  India.

Conclusion:

In my view, nothing materially has changed on the ground before and after the Supreme Court judgment on the Glivec case so far as the Indian Patents Act is concerned and also in its interpretation.

While encouraging all types of innovations, including incremental ones and protecting them with an effective IPR regime are very important for any country. No nation can afford to just wish away various socioeconomic expectations, demands and requirements not just of the poor, but also of the growing middle class intelligentsia, as gradually getting unfolded in many parts of the globe.

Available indicators do point out that the civil society would continue to expect in return, just, fair, responsible and reasonably affordable prices for the innovative medicines, based on the overall socioeconomic status of the local population.

This critical balancing factor is essential not only for the progress of the pharmaceutical industry, but also to alleviate sufferings of the ailing population of the country, effectively.

For arguments sake, in an ideal scenario, if the Central and State Governments in India decide to buy such drugs to supply to all patients free of cost, just like any ‘welfare state’, will even the Government be able to afford these prices and fund such schemes in India?

It is, therefore, now widely expected that innovator pharmaceutical companies, which play a pivotal role in keeping population of any nation healthy and disease free to the extent possible, should also proactively find out ways to help resolving this critical issue in India, working closely with the Government of 1.2 billion Indians, including other concerned stakeholders.

In that context, the landmark Supreme Court judgment on the Glivec case has vindicated the need of striking a right balance between encouraging and protecting innovation, including incremental ones and the public health interest of India.

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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