Humanitarian groups and AIDS activists say the price of generic AIDS drugs could rise rapidly if proposed changes to India’s patent laws are approved. India is the leading supplier of generic medicines. Many of the AIDS drugs manufactured there are used in sub-Saharan Africa.
On January first, India is scheduled to comply with World Trade Organization requirements to protect product patents on medicines.
The move would drive up prices, according to Ellen ‘t Hoen of Doctors Without Borders Essential Medicines Campaign.
"The rules of the World Trade Organization, as laid down in the TRIPS agreement – that is the agreement that lays down the rules on intellectual property rights – requires India to be fully TRIPS compliant as of January First. That means India will start granting pharmaceutical product patents. Some they have not done since 1970," she says.
Asia Russell of the group Health Gap says competition among domestic drug manufacturers in India has helped keep prices low.
She says, "Companies in India that manufacture anti-retrovirals (AIDS drugs), as well as other life extending health and important public health products, has shown that generic competition can dramatically reduce the cost - in the case of anti-retrovirals of a triple combination of HIV treatment – in some cases by as much as 90 percent compared with the cost of a brand name combination."
She says if India approves the changes in its patent laws to comply with the TRIPS Agreement, that competition could end.
"As you know, India has played a critical role in the international effort to increase access to affordable HIV treatment. India is the world’s major supplier of generic medicines and this change to its patent act means that this source of products could dry up and disappear," she says.
Ellen ‘t Hoen of Doctors Without Borders says the effects would be felt in sub-Saharan Africa.
"Many, many people in developing countries rely on affordable versions of medicines – in particular newer medicines – as they have been produced in India," she says.
She says generic drugs from India are a big reason why the medical group has been able to treat more HIV/AIDS patients in Africa.
Doctors Without Borders, Health Gap and others are calling on the Indian government “to prioritize the protection of public health, both for Indian consumers and consumers in developing countries.”
The TRIPS Agreement has been the source of heated debate for many years over the availability of AIDS drugs. Many large pharmaceutical firms in Western nations say the agreement ensures fair competition and a return on the many millions of dollars spent on research and development of new medicines.