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. Interestingly Pegasys was granted patent protection across the world.
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 the Patents Act of India.
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Similarly the patent for liver and kidney cancer drug of Pfizer – Sutent (Sunitinib), which was granted by IPO in 2007, was revoked by the IPAB in October, 2012 after a post grant challenge by Cipla and Natco Pharma on the ground that the claimed ‘invention’ does not involve inventive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.
A twist and turn:
However, on November 26, 2012 in a new twist to this case, the Supreme Court of India reportedlyrestored the patent for Sutent. Interestingly, at the same time the court removed the restraining order, which prevented Cipla from launching a copy-cat generic equivalent of Sunitinib.
The key reason:
All these are happening, as the amended Patents Act 2005 of India includes special protections for both patients and generic manufacturers by barring product patents involving ‘incremental’ changes to existing drugs. This practice is called “evergreening” by many.
It is worth noting, such ‘incremental innovations’ qualify for the grant of patents across the world including, Europe, Japan and the USA and that reason prompted initiation of a raging debate throwing strong arguments both in favor and against of this issue, though the subject conforms to the law of the land.
‘Incremental innovation’ still a contentious issue in India:
As on today in the Indian Patents Act 2005, there is virtually no protection for ‘incremental innovation’, as the section 3(d) of the statute states 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.”
A published report on ‘Patentability of the incremental innovation’ indicates that Indian Patents Act 2005 was formulated by the policy makers keeping the following points in mind:
- The strict standards of patentability as envisaged by TRIPS pose a challenge to India’s pharmaceutical industriy, whose success depended on the ability to produce generic drugs at much cheaper prices than their patented equivalents.
- A robust patent system would severely curtail access to expensive life saving drugs.
- Grant of a product patents should be restricted only to “genuine innovations” and those “incremental innovations” on existing medicines, which will demonstrate significantly increased efficacy over the original drug.
Is it ‘MNC Interest’ versus ‘Indian Interest’ issue?
Many domestic stakeholders reportedly are looking at this particular subject as ‘MNC Interest’ versus ‘Indian Interest’ in the realm of intellectual Property Rights (IPR). While others holding opposite view-points counter it by saying, this is a narrow and unfair perspective to address the much broader issue of fostering innovation within the Indian pharmaceutical industry helping capacity building, attracting talent and investments, while creating an IPR friendly ecosystem for the country in tandem.
Incidentally many MNCs, as reported by a section of the media, have demonstrated proven long-standing commitment to India, as they have been operating in the country with impeccable repute for a much longer period than most of the domestic pharmaceutical players, if not all, spanning across all scale and size of operations.
Are the patent challenges under section 3(d) being used as a ‘business strategy’?
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.
This game seems to have just begun and may probably assume unhealthy dimension, if not openly debated and appropriate remedial actions are taken, as will deem necessary by the law makers keeping in view the long term, both global and local, implications of the same.
The beginning of the dispute:
As we know, way back in 2006 IPO refused to grant patent to the cancer drug Glivec of Novartis on the ground that the molecule is a mere modification of an existing substance known as imatinib. However, Novartis challenged the decision in the Supreme Court of India and in September, 2012, the final arguments in the Glivec case commenced. The matter is now sub judice.
Experts have opined that this interesting development has put Section 3(d) of the Indian Patents Act 2005 to an ‘Acid Test’ and the final verdict of the apex court will have the last say on the interpretation of this much talked about section of the statute.
Industry observers from both schools of thought – pro and against, are now waiting eagerly for the final outcome of this long standing dispute with bated breath, as it were.
Differing view points on impact:
Though the domestic stakeholders, including the local pharmaceutical industry, by and large, have expressed satisfaction with the law having taken its own course, the adversely affected companies articulated their strong disappointments with the developments. These companies argue, since valid patents were granted across the world for all these products, they had deployed significant financial and other resources starting from the regulatory approval process to market launch of such products in India with reasonable confidence.
Now with the such revocation and denial of patents, the concerned companies feel that they will have to suffer significant financial losses besides high ‘Opportunity Costs’ for these molecules in India.
Interestingly, neutral observers have reportedly opined that this contentious issue, if not addressed appropriately and sooner by the government keeping in view the global business climate, will ultimately leave a lasting negative impression on the global community regarding the quality of IP ecosystem and investment climate in India, which consequently could lead to far reaching economic consequences extending even beyond the pharmaceutical industry of the country.
However, most of the local stakeholders advocate that there is no need to have a relook at it, in any way.
Opposition from the domestic industry:
It has been reported that a detailed study commissioned by the ‘Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance (IPA)’ and authored by Mr. T. C. James, Director, National Intellectual Property Organization, and a former bureaucrat in the ‘Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP)’, articulated as follows:
“There is no clinching evidence to show that without a strong patent protection regime innovations cannot occur, that minor incremental innovations in the pharmaceutical sector do not require patent protection and that Section 3(d) of the Patents Act is not a bar for patenting of significant incremental innovations.”
In his report Mr. James also criticized large ‘Multinational Companies (MNCs)’ for “exploring strategies to extend their hold on the market, including through obtaining patents on minor improvements of existing drugs.”
The author continues to argue in favor of the section 3(d) the as follows:
- It will be incorrect to conclude that Section 3 (d) is not compatible with TRIPS Agreement.
- It has stood the test of time and does not introduce any unreasonable restrictions on patenting.
- It is a major public health safeguard as it blocks extension of patent period through additional patents on insignificant improvements paving the way for introduction of generics on expiry of the original patent.
- Pharma companies need to be given incentives for undertaking more research and development, but removing section 3(d) will be counterproductive.
- A good marketing strategy for the companies would be to concentrate on R & D in diseases which are endemic to countries like Brazil, China and India which are fast emerging as major economies.
IPA challenges: 86 pharmaceutical patents granted by IPO fall under Section 3(d):
A 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 indeed be a nightmarish situation for innovators of all caste, creed and colors, irrespective of national or multinational background.
Recapitulation of ‘Revised Mashelkar Committee Report’:
In August 2009, the Government accepted the revised report of the ‘Mashelkar Committee’, which observed the following:
1. “It would not be TRIPS compliant to limit granting of patents for pharmaceutical substance to New Chemical Entities only, since it prima facie amounts to a statutory exclusion of a field of technology.”
2. “Innovative incremental improvements based on existing knowledge and existing products is a ‘norm’ rather than an ‘exception’ in the process of innovation. Entirely new chemical structures with new mechanisms of action are a rarity. Therefore, ‘incremental innovations’ involving new forms, analogs, etc. but which have significantly better safety and efficacy standards, need to be encouraged.”
Could it have an impact on FDI?
Keen observers of these developments have reportedly expressed that revocation of granted patents or denial of patents on patentability criteria for the molecules, which hold valid patents elsewhere in the world, is sending a very negative signal to the global community and vitiating, among others, the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) climate in the country. However, many local experts interpret this observation as mere ‘posturing’ at the behest of the MNCs’ interest.
The point to ponder:
The innovator companies have been arguing since quite some time that innovation involving any New Chemical Entity (NCE) never stops just after its market launch. Scientists keep working on such known molecules to meet more unmet needs of the patients within the same therapeutic class.
They substantiate their argument by citing examples like, after the discovery of beta-blockers, incremental innovation on this drug continued. That is why, from non-cardio-selective beta-blockers like Propranolol, the world received cardio-selective beta-blockers like Atenolol, offering immense benefits and choices to the doctors for the well being of patients.
Thus, global innovators reiterate very often that such examples of high value ‘incremental innovation’ are important points to ponder in India.
Patent challenge is a legal process, but…:
The proponents of ‘no change required in the Section 3(d)’ argue with gusto that ‘Patent Challenge’ is a legal process and the law should be allowed to take its own course.
However, the opposition counter-argues that the main reason in favor of Section 3(d) being that the provision will prevent grant of frivolous patents and the ultimate fallout of which will result in limited access to these drugs due to high price, is rather difficult to accept. 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.
The spirit of ‘public health interest’ and avoidance of frivolous patents behind Section 3(d) of the Indian Patents Act is indeed commendable.
However, exclusion of almost all kinds of ‘incremental innovation’ for not meeting the very subjective and highly discretionary ‘efficacy’ criterion in the above section could prove to be counterproductive in the long run, even for the domestic players. The reason being, many such innovations will help enhancing safety, efficacy and compliance, besides other properties, of already existing molecules meeting various unmet needs of the patients.
Looking from a different perspective altogether, restrictive provisions in Section 3(d) could well go against the public health interest in the longer term, especially when the government is considering a mechanism of price negotiation for the patented drugs in India, as stated above.
Thus weighing pros and cons of both the arguments, in the finer balance of probability in terms of net gain to India as a nation, I reckon, appropriate legislative amendment in the section 3(d) of the Indian Patents Act 2005 will give a much required boost and incentive to pharmaceutical research and development in India.
This long overdue course-correction, if dealt with crafty win-win legal minds, will be able to protect not only high value “incremental innovations” of all innovators, global or local, in pursuit of significantly better and better drugs for the patients of India, but at the same time will effectively address the genuine apprehensions of ‘evergreening’ through frivolous patents.
…Or else should we wait till the final verdict of the Supreme Court comes on the Glivec case of Novartis?… Keeping my fingers crossed.
By: Tapan J. Ray
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