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A petition has been launched to oppose a court case prohibiting Indian companies' ability to make cheap, generic drugs.

Aid organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) is collecting signatures against a lawsuit filed by pharmaceutical company Novartis. The court case is scheduled for 29 January in Madras.

Novartis's patent claim for the cancer drug Gilvec was rejected by Indian courts in January 2006. In response, the company filed court action against the Indian government and patent office in May, claiming breach of World Trade Organization rules.

Indian law does not recognise patents for derivatives or combinations of existing drugs, which has led to a lucrative trade in generic drugs. Over half the antiretroviral drugs used in developing countries are made by Indian companies.

It is feared that if Novartis wins its case, the number of available generics will plummet.

Médecins Sans Frontières was successful with a similar case in 2001, when 39 companies took the South African government to court over imported generic AIDS drugs. A similar petition garnered 300,000 signatures and the companies eventually dropped their case.

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