An Indian court was fully justified to reject a patent bid by Swiss drug giant Novartis last week, India's trade and industry minister insisted in Geneva on Monday, defending the country's generic drug business.
"The reasons for the denial .. are absolutely justified under the law," Anand Sharma told reporters following a ceremony marking his country's accession to the Madrid Protocol, an international trademark system.
Novartis had fought a seven-year legal battle to gain patent protection for an updated version of its blockbuster leukaemia drug Glivec, arguing the compound was a significant improvement because it is more easily absorbed by the body.
India's Supreme Court however fell in line with three previous court rulings and found that the compound "did not satisfy the test of novelty or inventiveness" required by Indian legislation.
"Our law does not accept evergreening," Sharma pointed out, referring to India's law restricting pharmaceutical companies from seeking fresh patents for making minor modifications.
Speaking at the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva, he emphatically stressed the independence of India's judiciary and insisted the government had nothing to do with last week's ruling, which enables generic drugmakers to continue copying Glivec, and which was harshly criticised by Novartis.
That company and other global drugmakers say India's powerhouse generics industry and strict patent filtering reduce commercial incentives to produce cutting-edge medicines.
Sharma meanwhile pointed out that Novartis is the third largest beneficiary of registered patents in India, behind Roche and Sanofi, with 147 patents to its name in the country.
"Why are we not being respected for having granted the 147 patents to the same company rather than (discussing how) the Indian judiciary has denied one?" he asked.
Sharma insisted his country was "committed to protecting intellectual property," pointing out that patent applications in the country had more than doubled in the past five years.
The country's decision to join the Madrid trademark system Monday was also "a very strong reaffirmation of India's commitment ... not only to trademark protection but also to intellectual property protections," he said.
But he made no apologies for his country's booming generic drug trade, which he pointed out has helped dramatically slash the cost and increase the availability of life-saving drugs to combat diseases like AIDS and cancer.
"The right balance has to be found ... to ensure the common good," he said.