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[NEW DELHI] An Indian court today (6 August) rejected a petition by the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis challenging a clause in Indian patent law that prohibits the patenting of minor changes to existing drugs.

A statement released by the international medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), quoting Tido von Schoen-Angerer, director of the MSF Campaign for Access to Essential Medicine, says, "This is a huge relief for millions of patients and doctors in developing countries who depend on affordable medicines from India."

Novartis challenged the clause in the Chennai High Court in 2006 after its application for a patent for the anti-cancer drug Glivec was rejected on grounds that it was simply a newer version of an existing drug.

Novartis said the Indian clause violated the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) rules under the World Trade Organization.

The case came under international spotlight when MSF launched a global petition in December 2006 urging Novartis to drop the case (see Petition supports India's generic drugs).

It said if patents were granted for minor changes to drugs, this would affect hundreds of HIV-infected patients in developing countries who depend on generic drugs made in India.

"We call upon multinational drug companies and wealthy countries to leave the Indian Patents Act alone and stop pushing for ever stricter patent regimes in developing countries," von Schoen-Angerer said in the statement.

A statement by Novartis says the court's decision "will have long-term negative consequences for research and development into better medicines for patients in India and abroad".

Leena Menghaney, from the India office of MSF, told SciDev.Net that India sets an example to the rest of the developing world in setting standards for TRIPS and safeguards to protect the rights of access to treatment for the poor.

The outcome of the case will not only affect millions in India, but also people in Africa, Brazil and Thailand, multilateral agencies, and nongovernmental organisations who depend on India for cheap drugs, says Menghaney.

With this judgment, fewer drugs will be patented in India, and more people will have access to cheaper medicines, she says.

Had Novartis won, says Menghaney, the supply of cheaper drugs from countries like India would have been cut off, making it difficult for countries to implement compulsory licensing — the process by which countries can bypass the patents if there are good reasons to do so — to ensure supply of affordable medicines to the poor.