In 2014, Novartis sued the Indian company Cipla over the infringement of Onbrez, an inhaler used in cases of respiratory difficulty. Cipla had launched a similar product at a fifth of the original price claiming urgent unmet needs for the drug in the country. Amazingly, in 2015, the Delhi High court ruled in favour of the Swiss drug maker and restrained Cipla from selling its version of the drug.
Indian pharmaceutical companies and the Indian government have been notorious for aggressively protecting intellectual property. Indeed, for many years, India has refused to recognise patents by foreign pharmaceutical firms which has allowed domestic companies to produce copies at a cheap price. This has led the country to become the world’s largest producer of generic. In 1995, after joining the World Trade Organisation, the country was forced to change its policy, which it did in 2005. The new patent system has a clause for compulsory licensing under which the government can force a company to licence its drug to a generic firm. Compulsory licensing usually takes place when a drug becomes non available or is overpriced. It assures to be used only in times of national emergency or for non-profit.
Many drug makers such as Roch and Novartis have been fighting many cases in court. Novartis battled laborious cases since 2006 to fight over its patent for Glivec, a successful inhibitor used in multiple cancers, only to lose in a Supreme Court ruling in 2013. Roch suffered a similar fate with its blockbuster cancer drug Tarceva.
The favourable ruling for Novartis in the Onbrez case has nourished beliefs that the government of Narendra Modi is steadily dissociating his government from a philosophy aimed at making expensive drugs available to the general Indian population. A recent leaked report from the US-India Business Council (USIBC) has revealed that Indian government officials have privately assured drug maker that compulsory licensing will not be issued anymore. Contacted by The Indian Express, President of the USIBC Mukesh Aghi said: “It’s true” but emphasises that compulsory licensing would still be used in emergencies. However, in March of this year, The Commerce Ministry issued statements that “such reports are factually incorrect”.