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India is the world's pharmacy?

"While China was becoming the world's shop floor, India took its place as the world's pharmacy"

So starts an article in today's New York Times about patent disputes around generic copies of patented Western drugs.

"Intellectual property" and "India" have long been viewed as mutually exclusive and the resolution of pharma patent disputes has had a frustrating habit of taking one step forward and then two back. Things may get resolved now though.

Novartis, the producer of cancer drug Gleevec, has a case before the Indian Supreme Court, which will hear final arguments later this month. As usually happens in intellectual disputes in developing countries, the debate is not just about "law".

The New York Times puts it this way:

"[The case] represents a high-stakes showdown between defenders of intellectual property rights, who say the generic knockoffs stifle innovation by drug makers, and Indian drug companies and international aid groups, who warn that a ruling in favor of Novartis could dry up the global supply of inexpensive medicines to treat AIDS, cancer and other diseases."
The financials support both sides' arguments. According to the article, generic versions of Gleevec are much more affordable - up to $70,000 a year in the U.S. for the real thing vs. an Indian generic for about $2,500 annually.

India isn't just for clinical trials anymore. Thanks to soaring incomes, expanding insurance coverage, and more chronic diseases, the country has become a big attraction and huge market for pharmaceutical companies.

But at the same time as India seeks access to lower cost Western medicines, it continues to look for help in fighting bio-piracy.

Regardless of the outcome of the Novartis case, it is unlikely that these issues will be put to rest. The best everybody can hope for is increased clarity around what is and what is not patentable in India.

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