SC’s Novartis judgement renews focus on accessible medicine

SC’s Novartis judgement renews focus on accessible medicine

The recent Supreme Court judgment dismissing pharma giant Novartis’ claim for patent protections in India for its award-winning and prohibitively priced anti-leukemia drug Glivec has renewed the focus on accessibly-priced drugs – in particular the failure of the Indian public healthcare system and health policy to ensure affordable drugs for all.

Studies show that as much as 70% of health spending in India comes from out-of-pocket payments, with 50-80% of this expenditure being for the purchase of drugs. In fact, the Ministry for Rural Development says that health expenses are the single largest driver of indebtedness for rural Indians.

The crushing costs for individual patients and families are particularly ironic when one considers the fact that the Rs 100,000 crore Indian pharmaceutical industry is not just the 3rd largest in the world but is also turning into the chemist for the global south, with exports of low-priced generics amounting to over Rs 42,000 crore each year.

The state currently spends just 0.1% of its GDP (Rs 6000 crores) on drug procurement. A government report argues that just increasing this to 0.5% of GDP would be “adequate to supply essential medicines free to everyone, distributed through public and private channels.”

In addition, critics say that the state hasn’t made adequate efforts to regulate domestic drug prices and the operations of multinational pharma companies. It has also failed to build an extensive public network of fair-priced chemist shops under the still-born Jan Aushadhi scheme.

The 12th Plan (2013-17) speaks of a renewed commitment to public health but it remains to be seen if policymakers can turn India’s growing domestic tide of medicines beyond reach.    

Further reading:

Basic backgrounders on generics and why they are lesser priced

Findings and recommendations by the government’s High Level Expert Group (HLEG) on Universal Health Coverage (UHC), which submitted its report in October 2010

A report on meeting the challenges facing Indian pharma: 
The National Pharmaceutical Pricing Policy (NPPP-2012) which was notified in November 2012 and seeks to regulate prices of 348 essential medicines, and the Jan Aushadhi scheme for a network of public fair-price medicine shops:
Low-cost Jan Aushadhi stores to be re-invented, The Hindu Business Line, July 27 2012

The implications of a failing public healthcare system for rural Indians:
Public health system in India has collapsed: Ramesh, The Hindu, 16 November, 2012
Free drugs for all?-Nirmalya Dutta, 30 November, 2012,

A paper exploring the links between rural indebtedness and healthcare costs in Gurdaspur and Amritsar districts of Punjab

Initiatives by state governments in Rajasthan and West Bengal to provide access to affordable generic drugs:
Mamata Banerjee battles for generic drugs, 16 March, 2012
India Poised to Supply Free Drugs to 1.2 Billion People-Zofeen Ebrahim, 8 November, 2012

There Is A cure -Pragya Singh, Outlook, 27 July, 2009

A field report on how the National Health Insurance system is working:
Natco Pharma wins cancer drug case-R Sivaraman, The Hindu, 4 March, 2013,

EU, Australia, Canada may follow India’s Patent Law -Divya Rajagopal, The Economic Times, 4 April, 2013,

When innovation is under threat-Swati Piramal, The Indian Express, 2 April, 2013,
YK Sapru, founder chairperson of Cancer Patients Aid Association (CPAA) interviewed by Sushmi Dey, The Business Standard, 3 April, 2013,

Novartis patent case: Glivec developer Brian Druker hails SC ruling- Chidanand Rajghatta, The Economic Times, 3 April, 2013,


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