Non-governmental organizations working in the health sector in developing countries have welcomed a decision by the High Court in Chennai, India, rejecting a challenge to Indian patent law by the Swiss firm Novartis. Novartis sought protections against the manufacture of generic medicines and incremental changes to existing drugs. VOA's Delia Robertson reports from our southern Africa bureau in Johannesburg.

Non-governmental organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières and the Treatment Action Campaign say the decision by the High Court in Chennai, formerly Madras, is a major victory for affordable access to medications in developing nations. The court rejected an application by drug manufacturer Novartis to amend Indian patent law. The law limits the granting of patents to substantive innovations in drug development.

MSF South Africa spokesperson, Marta Darder, told VOA implications for the developing world cannot be over-emphasized.

"One has to keep in mind that India at the moment is basically the pharmacy of the developing world," said Darder. "Many, many people in poor countries are getting drugs from Indian manufacturers. If this amendment of the bill would have been passed, the one that Novartis was pushing for, many of the pharmaceutical companies that are at the moment active in India and doing business with developing countries would have to basically shut down; because they would have run out of business."

Novartis argued that Indian patent law violates intellectual property agreements of the World Trade Organization, known as TRIPS, but the judge ruled that the World Trade Organization must itself decide that. He also ruled that India's patent law does not violate the country's supreme law.

MSF's Darder says that India's patent law is in compliance with the special provisions in TRIPS agreements that offer special consideration to developing nations facing health emergencies, such as HIV/AIDS and malaria.

"It is extremely good news that the Indian courts decided to defend the patent bill and keep the sections within the law that allows them to make use of flexibilities that are perfectly in resonance with TRIPS agreements, with intellectual property agreements at the WTO," she said.

Pharmaceutical companies have frequently argued that flexibility in patent laws results in reduced company revenues and consequently less money for research and development. Darder says that most research and development targets rich populations.

"Well that has been an argument that has been used so often, and there is a lot of evidence out there already that proves that with the current system of incentives and with the way the global market of pharmaceuticals operates at the moment, there is just no incentive for industry to invest in drugs that are used [mostly] for developing countries," said Darder. "There is hardly any research in new TB drugs, and TB diagnostics; there is hardly any research in new malaria products; there is very little in trypanosomiasis [sleeping sickness], yet people are still dying from these conditions, many people."

South Africa's Treatment Action Campaign said in a statement that the decision of the Chennai court is a victory for health activists, poor people and people with life-threatening and chronic illnesses globally, including HIV/AIDS.