Concerns raised over Indian patent bill

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[NEW DELHI] The international medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has expressed concern that a proposed law to allow universities to patent publically-funded research discoveries could hamper innovation in neglected disease research and prevent medical technologies getting to the poor.

The proposed law is similar to the Bayh-Dole Act that allows US universities and businesses to patent results emerging from publically-funded research.

India’s science minister, Kapil Sibal, confirmed at a meeting organised by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) this month (16 October) that his government plans to introduce a bill in the current session of parliament. The draft has not yet been made public.

But Leena Menghaney, project officer at the India office of MSF, says that the proposed law will not create any incentives for much-needed research into neglected diseases, whose medicines are not seen as profit-earners by pharmaceutical companies.

She questions how medical innovations can be made accessible to the poor if exclusive marketing rights for a product are granted to a single firm, and says such a law doesn’t offer regulatory and policy support to alternative emerging options in drug discovery, such as open source drug discovery (see ‘Open source’ urged for TB drug design effort).

Supporters of the proposed law say the Bayh-Dole Act helps universities make millions of dollars through patents. They cite US-based Yale University’s HIV/AIDS drug stavudine, which was developed through government-funded research. Its patent successfully transferred to pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers-Squib.

But Amy Kapczynski, assistant professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, told SciDev.Net the Bayh Dole Act has "failed" to ensure that results of publically-funded research are available at an affordable cost.

She says that in the case of stavudine, Bristol-Myers-Squib strictly enforced the patent law, even in South Africa at the peak of its AIDS epidemic in 2000, which meant it cost US$1600 annually to treat a patient.

Samir Brahmachari, director general of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), told the FICCI meeting it was important to strike a balance between intellectual property protection and public health.

He cited the example of how CSIR laboratories made a drug based on the plant-based antimalarial compound artemisinin cheaply for the poor, but did not claim any patent rights over it so that anyone could use the know-how to make the drug cheaply.