MUMBAI: In a landmark decision that could set a precedent on how life-saving drugs under patents can be made affordable, the government has allowed a domestic company, Natco Pharma, to manufacture a copycat version of Bayer's patented anti-cancer drug, Nexavar, bringing down its price by 97%.
In the first-ever case of compulsory licencing approval, the Indian Patent Office on Monday cleared the application of Hyderabad's Natco Pharma to sell generic drug Nexavar, used for renal and liver cancer, at Rs 8,880 (around $175) for a 120-capsule pack for a month's therapy. Bayer offers it for over Rs 2.8 lakh (roughly $5,500) per 120 capsule. The order provides hope for patients who cannot afford these drugs.
The approval paves the way for the launch of Natco's drug in the market, a company official told TOI, adding that it will pay a 6% royalty on net sales every quarter to Bayer. The licence will be valid till such time the drug's patent is valid, i.e. 2020. As per the CL (compulsory licence) order, Natco is also committed to donating free supplies of the medicines to 600 patients each year.
Bayer said it was "disappointed" and would "evaluate options to defend intellectual property rights" in the country. In July 2011, Natco had applied for the CL in the Mumbai patent office to make Sorafenib Tosylate for which Bayer has a patent in the country since 2008.
Under Section 84, a compulsory licence to manufacture a drug can be issued after three years of the grant of patent on the product, which is not available at an affordable price. Under the World Trade Organisation TRIPS Agreement, compulsory licences are legally-recognized means to overcome barriers in accessing affordable medicines. This is the first time in the history of the Indian Patents Act, 1970, that the provision under Section 84 has been invoked.
The patent office acted on the basis that not only had Bayer failed to price the drug at a level that made it accessible and affordable, it also was unable to ensure that the medicine was available in sufficient quantities within India. Controller general of patents, P H Kurian, based his decision on Bayer's admission that only 2% of kidney and liver cancer patients were able to access the drug, and its pricing (Rs 2.8 lakh for a month) did not constitute a "reasonably affordable" price.
Since 2005, domestic drug manufacturers have faced formidable barriers in the manufacture of patented drugs, and this has been remedied by the compulsory licensing provision to prevent patent holders from having a monopoly over certain essential medicines.
Interestingly, generic manufacturer Cipla has already launched generic Nexavar (Sorafenib Tosylate) at around Rs 28,000 per 120-capsule pack, and is embroiled in a dispute with Bayer in the Delhi high court.
Economist and intellectual property expert James Love said, "The Bayer price of Rs 34,11,898 per year ($69,000) is more than 41 times the projected average per capita income for India in 2012, shattering any measure of affordability. Bayer tried to justify its high price by making claims of high R&D costs, but refused to provide any details of its actual outlays on the research for Sorafenib, a cancer drug that was partly subsidized by the US Orphan Drug tax credit, and jointly developed with Onyx Pharmaceuticals. Bayer has made billions from Sorafenib, and made little effort to sell the product in India where its price is far beyond the means of all but a few persons."
Dr Tido von Schoen-Angerer, director of independent healthcare organization, MSF, said, "We have been following this case closely because newer drugs to treat HIV are patented in India, and as a result are priced out of reach. But this decision marks a precedent that offers hope. It shows that new drugs under patent can also be produced by generic makers at a fraction of the price, while royalties are paid to the patent holder. This compensates patent holders while at the same time ensuring that competition can bring down prices."
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Govt uses special powers to slash cancer drug price by 97%