Pharma battle

The Supreme Court asked Swiss pharma giant Novartis AG whether it should not sell its anti-cancer drug for Rs 5 each to benefit common man. A bench of Justices Aftab Alam and Ranajan Prakash Desai posed the query to Novartis AG while hearing its plea seeking affirmation of the exclusivity of its blood cancer drug Glivec and its right to get it patented in India.

“Why don`t you sell it for Rs 5? People find it difficult to buy it,” the bench asked senior counsel Goapl Subramanium as he, appearing for the firm, argued that getting the drug patented would not affect the treatment of the poor. Taking a dig at the huge cost of the drug, the bench remarked in a lighter vein the cost was perhaps prohibitive even for the apex court judges. “The monthly cost of Rs 1.2 lakh is too high. The government may revoke our reimbursement of medical bill if it goes to that extent,” the bench quipped.

The bench observed that public “trust comes not from the pricing but from the efficacy of the drug.” The company was asserting its claim for getting a patent for the compound form in India and its exclusive marketing rights. An apex court bench of the Justice Aftab Alam and Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai was told that Novartis AG developed the beta crystalline form of imatinib mesylate, which is used for the treatment of the chronic mycloid leukemia.

Senior counsel Gopal Subramanium, who appeared for the Novartis, told the court that imatinib mesylate was known as a compound but its efficacy as an anti-cancer drug was not known and was discovered by the company in its beta crystalline form. The company said the cancer treatment medicine was intended to kept within the reach of the poor patients and a large number of poor patients were being provided with the cancer treating medicine free of cost. As Justice Alam said: “You have no legal obligation (of proving free medicine)”, Subramanium replied: “I have commitment and responsibility.” However, counsel said that he would take instructions on the query by the court.

Justice Alam asked Novartis: “I am surprised that you can reduce the price and knock out your competitors” and yet you were not adopting that course. ”There are some constraints when it comes to pricing,” Subramanium said adding that Novartis was a corporate entity with stake holders. Novartis challenged in the apex court the Intellectual Property Appellate Board’s (IPAB) decision which held that beta crystalline form of imatinib mesylate was an invention but did not agree to grant patent for it.

Subramanium told the court that its medicine which was being marketed by the trade name of “Gleevec” had been patented in 35 countries including by the US.  As Justice Alam observed “this is a difficult country”, Novartis’s counsel Subramanium said: “I don’t think so”. Subramanium told the court that Novartis was not fighting legal battle for the sake of money but as a matter of honour. “The purpose of this case is not for money but the vindication of honour.” The court was told that a large number of poor patients were being provided with the cancer treating medicine free of cost. The court asked Subramanium what was the guarantee that if Novartis’ prayer was allowed then it would continue with its scheme of providing free cancer treatment medicine to deserving patients. ”It is not intended to be kept out of reach of the poor,” Subramanium said.

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