Hundreds of Indian activists protested in New Delhi on Monday against a challenge to the country's patent law by Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis, saying the move could leave millions without access to affordable medicine.
Novartis, which makes the popular leukemia drug Gleevec _ known in Europe and India as Glivec _ is fighting the Indian government's rejection of its attempt to patent a new version of the medicine.
If Novartis wins the civil suit, Indian firms would be banned from making generic versions of the drug. Activists fear this could set a precedent for other pharmaceutical companies seeking patent protection for essential medicines _ including antiretroviral AIDS drugs _ currently made cheaply in places like India.
"We will all lose if this case is accepted," said Loon Gangte, 40, an HIV-positive activist who was among the few hundred people protesting in downtown New Delhi on Monday.
A court was hearing the case the same day in the southern Indian city of Chennai, but no ruling was expected for several weeks.
India's patent law, which came into effect Jan. 1, 2005, allows patents for products that represent new inventions after 1995 _ the year India joined the World Trade Organization _ or for an updated drug that shows greater efficacy.
Novartis insists that its improved drug is more easily absorbed by the body.
But Indian drug companies and aid groups say Gleevec is a new form of an old drug invented before 1995.
Several Indian pharmaceutical companies already make generic copies of Gleevec, but sell it at a 10th of the US$2,600 (euro2,000) price for a monthly dose charged by the Swiss company.
Indian companies also make a host of other generic drugs, available at a fraction of the price of branded medicine _ and used throughout the developing world, where the need for affordable medicines is high.
"Novartis is trying to shut down the pharmacy of the developing world," Unni Karunakara of the international aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, said at a news conference.
Karunakara said the ruling would have an impact globally, noting that 80 percent of the drugs MSF uses to treat AIDS were from India.
The group, along with Oxfam, has collected some 250,000 signatures for a petition asking Novartis to drop its case.
"It is unethical, immoral and evil to profiteer from drugs," Amit Sengupta, a New Delhi-based activist told reporters.
Novartis has defended its position and said it will offer its leukemia drug for free to patients who cannot afford it even if it wins the case.
"We don't fight for Gleevec, we fight for the principle," Paul Herrling, head of Novartis' corporate research, told The Associated Press in an interview last week.
"We are deeply convinced that patents save lives. If the patent law is undermined the way it is happening in India, there will be no more investment into the discovery of lifesaving drugs," Herrling said.