Curiously enough, what a little birdie told me just a couple of weeks ago, very similar to that I read in various media reports even less than a week later.
It was related to a somewhat trepidatious national policy in the making on Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) in India.
One major apprehension, besides a few others on this IPR Policy, was flying all over and nettling many. It was regarding the possibility of tweaking or dilution of the Indian Patents Act by the Government, coming under strong external pressure and also to get support on India’s food security in the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Probably to douse this simmering fire of trepidation, well calibrated, unambiguous and reassuring narratives on the subject were unfolded recently by the Government, that too in a quick succession, which were somewhat as under.
On July 20, 2015, at an event organized by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), the Commerce and Industry Minister Nirmala Sitharaman reiterated that:
- India’s IPR laws are quite in compliant with the TRIPS (Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) agreement.
- There is no need for apprehension in any corner of the world as to what India’s patent regime is like.
The Minister also indicated at the same event that following a transparent process of drafting…and redrafting; the final blue print of the IPR policy has now been circulated to all concerned ministries for inter-ministerial consultations. After completion of that process soon, her Ministry would submit the final version to the Cabinet for approval.
It is now anticipated that by the end of this year the first ‘IPR Policy’ of India would be operational.
The creeping angst for a possible twitching in the country’s otherwise robust Patents Act, was mostly originated from a pointed recent utterance of Prime Minister Modi on this issue that we shall quickly explore in this article.
Another stronger assertion:
Immediately thereafter, while commenting on a related article published in an Indian business daily dated July 24, 2015, Minister Nirmala Sitharaman reasserted the following points even more emphatically and virtually in so many words:
- India’s IPR laws are fully compliant with international obligations under the TRIPS agreement. This includes the Patents Act, 2005, whose provisions have time and again stood the test of judicial scrutiny.
- There is no question of permitting ‘evergreening’ of patents, or of realigning our IPR laws to comply with US laws.
- There is no question of sacrificing our IPR laws to get support from a particular country even on food security.
A brief background:
In October 2014, almost immediately after Prime Minister Modi’s return to India from the United States, the the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP) formed a six-member ‘Think Tank’, chaired by Justice (Retd.) Prabha Sridevan, to draft the ‘National IPR Policy’ and suggest ways and legal means to handle undue pressure exerted by other countries in IPR related areas.
The notification mandated the ‘Think Tank’ to examine the current issues raised in such reports and give suggestions to the ministry of Commerce & Industry as appropriate.
However, the domestic pharma industry, many international and national experts together with the local stakeholders, continue to strongly argue against any fundamental changes in the prevailing robust patent regime of India.
Taking quick strides, on December 19, 2014, the Think Tank’ released its first draft of 29 pages seeking stakeholders’ comments. According to Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, “Different people, countries, including the United States and other organizations have already given their inputs on the draft policy.”
The new policy would focus on stronger enforcement of IPR by increasing the manpower in IP offices and reducing pendency of IPR filings. It aims at bringing clarity to the existing laws and making changes wherever required to safeguard the interests of Indian industry and patent holders worldwide.
I reviewed this subject in my blog post of January 19, 2015 titled, New “National IPR Policy” of India – A Pharma Perspective.
Most recent apprehension:
The most recent spark for the speculation of a possible dilution in the Indian Patents Act 2005, came from the April 24, 20015 media report that quoted Prime Minister Modi expressing his intent on the issue, seemingly going overboard, as follows:
“India’s patent laws should be brought on par with global standards to make Asia’s third largest economy a hub for outsourced creative services.”
The basic purpose of making such an apparently ambiguous statement may be construed as an attempt to attract more Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) for the country.
Whatever it may be, this announcement of the Prime Minister sent a strong signal to many as an impending major shift in his Government’s thinking to move away from an otherwise robust and a decade old IPR regime in India, undoubtedly under intense external pressure.
The above pronouncement from an otherwise tough minded Prime Minister came as a bolt from the blue, as it were, to many stakeholders. This is mainly because; India has so far been maintaining in all forum that its IPR regime is fully TRIPS compliant and garnered enough international support from the experts in this area, including Nobel Laureates.
The Prime Minister made his intent even stronger, when he further elaborated his argument as under:
“If we don’t work towards bringing our intellectual property rights at par with global parameters, then the world will not keep relations with us. If we give confidence to the world on IPR, then we can become a destination globally for their creative work.”
Some American Government agencies reportedly lapped up Prime Minister Modi’s statement as they openly commented as follows:
“The United States also welcomes April 2015 statements made by Prime Minister Modi recommending that India align its patent laws with international standards and encourages India expeditiously undertake this initiative”
Prime Minister Modi’s comment in this regard that “India needs to bring its patent laws on par with global standards,” comes of rather intriguing to many domain experts, as TRIPS agreement is the only universally accepted ‘Global Standard’ for IPR. Even the new Government has reiterated that Indian patent regime is fully TRIPS compliant.
India welcomes and encourages innovation:
With the enactment of Patents Act 2005, India has demonstrated that Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) and pharma patents in particular, help fostering innovation and is critical in meeting unmet needs of the patients.
However, the moot question still remains, what type pharmaceutical invention, should deserve market exclusivity or monopoly with overall freedom in pricing, keeping larger public health interest in mind.
There are still some loose knots in the process of speedy resolution of all IP related disputes and creation of a desirable ecosystem for innovation in the country, that the new IPR Policy is expected to effectively address, soon.
Two fundamental changes that the US is looking for:
Leaving aside the peripheral ones, the following two are the center pieces where the United States would want India to dilute its Patents Act 2005 considerably:
- Patentability for all types of innovation, including ‘me-too’ ones and evergreening of patents, which would delay entry of affordable generic drugs.
- “Compulsory Licensing (CL)” provisions, other than during natural calamities.
The status today:
Though the Prime Minister has not further spoken on this subject publicly, from the recent statements of the Union Minster of Commerce and Industry it seems rather clear that for greater public health interest, India has decided to keep its Patents Act undiluted, at least, for now.
The Union Government has distinctly explained its stand in the following two areas:
I. No…No, to ‘Evergreening’ of patents in India:
In line with this thinking, for quite sometime a raging global debate has brought to the fore that there are quite a large number of patents on drug variants that offer not very significant value to the patients over the mother molecules, yet are as expensive, if not more than the original ones.
In common parlance these types of inventions are considered as ‘trivial incremental innovations’ and described as attempts to ‘evergreening’ the patents.
A paper titled, “Pharmaceutical Innovation, Incremental Patenting and Compulsory Licensing” by Carlos M. Correa argued as follows:
“Despite decline in the discovery of New Chemical Entities (NCEs) for pharmaceutical use, there has been significant proliferation of patents on products and processes that cover minor, incremental innovations.”
The study conducted in five developing countries – Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, India and South Africa has:
- Evidenced a significant proliferation of ‘evergreening’ pharmaceutical patents that can block generic competition and thereby limit patients’ access to medicines.
- Found that both the nature of pharmaceutical learning and innovation and the interest of public health are best served in a framework where rigorous standards of inventive steps are used to grant patents.
- Suggested that with the application of well-defined patentability standards, governments could avoid spending the political capital necessary to grant and sustain compulsory licenses/government use.
- Commented, if patent applications were correctly scrutinized, there would be no need to have recourse to CL measures.
Indian Patents Act under its section 3(d), discourages the above practices for public health interest. This particular provision, though absolutely TRIPS compliant is not followed in the developed markets, predominantly for commercial reasons. Hence the mounting pressure is on India for its major dilution.
II. Compulsory License (CL) provisions would stay to prevent misuse and abuse:
This is another major safeguard provision for the patients against abuse and misuse of patents, including obscene price tags of patented drugs, non-working of patents as a commercial strategy, limited availability, besides extreme urgency and some other situations. Though TRIPS very clearly allows all such provisions, India has so far granted just one CL.
With these India has amply demonstrated that CL provisions are important safeguards for the country and not for abuse or misuse by any one, including the Government. Moreover, it has to pass the acid test of rigorous judicial scrutiny that includes the Supreme Court of India.
Despite all these, more scares are being created around CL provisions in India than what is the reality in the country.
Various safeguards and deterrents against misuse and abuse of patents are absolutely essential for public health interest. Hence there is naturally no question of going back from such provisions in the statute.
It is worth noting, if Indian Patent regime is not TRIPS compliant, why hasn’t any country complained against India to the World Trade Organization (WTO) for having all these provisions in the Indian Patents Act, as yet?
India shows the new IPR way:
According to available reports, the following countries are coming closer to the Indian pharma patent regime:
- Argentina has issued guidelines to reject ‘frivolous’ patents
- Peru, Columbia and some other South American countries have placed curbs
- Philippines has similar provisions
- South Africa is contemplating to incorporate such steps
- Australia is deliberating on making the law tougher
Positive reverberations in the domestic pharma sector:
Home grown pharma players seem to be visibly happy too, as the overall stand of the Government in this regards is getting clearer.
This in many ways gets vindicated, when a promoter, chairperson and managing director of a mid-size Indian Pharma and Biotech company, with high media visibility, reportedly comments on the finalization of Indian IPR Policy as follows:
“There is a need to protect interest and disallow monopolies like big pharma or big companies/corporates that want to invest and take advantage of the Indian market.”
Concerns of some ‘Who’s Who’:
The following is just an example of such concern:
On February 10, 2015, the Nobel Laureate in Economics – Joseph E. Stiglitz, made the following comment in an article published in ‘The World Opinion Page’ of ‘Project Syndicate’:
“If the Obama administration succeeds in forcing India to strengthen its patent laws, the change would harm not only India and other developing countries; it would also enshrine a grossly corrupt and inefficient patent system in the US, in which companies increase their profits by driving out the competition – both at home and abroad. After all, generic drugs from India often provide the lowest-cost option in the US market once patent terms have expired.”
As things stand today, it would not be unreasonable to conclude that the Nobel Laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz’s worst apprehension on the Indian Patent regime, in all probability would not come true.
For quite some time, Indian Government has been under intense nagging from the United States, other developed countries, many drug MNCs and the pharma lobby groups lavishly funded by them; to effect major changes in the Patents Act of the country that currently denies unreasonable commercial exploitations, in many ways. Section 3(d) of the statute is just one of the key examples.
The browbeaters of such ilk keep pontificating the importance of ‘innovation’ and that too with a condescending undertone, as if the Indian Government is blissfully ignorant about it.
They allegedly want the Government to dilute the robust safeguard provisions of Indian Patents Act, trying to unfairly tilt the balance of justice in their favor. Consequently, it would go against the patients’ health interest by considerably delaying entry of cheaper generic equivalents, of ‘me-too’ type of inventions, in the country.
Despite initial apprehensions based on the possible misconstrued observation of the Prime Minister Modi on this issue, clear and unambiguous recent assertions of the Government on the patent regime of India, especially in the ‘count-down’ days of the new IPR Policy announcements, is reassuring. It goes without saying, this cannot happen without the benediction of India’s all-powerful Prime minister.
As stated in the draft document, let us hope that the new IPR Policy would help establishing a dynamic, vibrant and balanced intellectual property system in India, to foster innovation and creativity in a knowledge economy and accelerate economic growth, employment and entrepreneurship.
Under this backdrop, it now emerges almost indubitably that Indian Patents Act 2005 would continue to prevail undiluted much to the dismay of its fiercest critics…Finally?
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.