India has decided to end the monopoly of pharmaceutical giant Bayer by overturning its patent of anti-cancer drug Nexavar.

A domestic company, Natco, will now be allowed to produce a copy-cat version of Nexavar, and sell it for a fraction of the price. The decision gives renewed hope to thousands of Indian cancer patients who would not otherwise be able to afford the drug.

"We are very disappointed with the order of the patent controller of India. We strongly disagree with his conclusions and will appeal the order to defend our intellectual property rights which are a prerequisite for bringing innovative medicines to patients. We will continue to ensure the supply of innovative medicines to patients in India and offer healthcare providers in India our expertise in order to contribute to the national healthcare system."

- Bayer's statement

India's decision is a major blow to big pharmaceutical companies and sets a precedent that could extend to other treatments including HIV/Aids.

Pharmaceutical companies say overruling patents inhibits innovation of new medicines.

But companies in developing countries are increasingly challenging pharmaceutical patents, arguing that human lives are more important than intellectual property rights and the economic interest of the pharmaceutical industry.

So is there a moral obligation to overturn patents if it saves human lives? Who will pay the development of new drugs? And will this kind of decision convince drug producers to lower their prices?

Inside Story, with presenter Adrian Finighan, discusses with James Love, the director of Knowledge Ecology International; Kevin Craig, the managing director of Political Lobbying and Media Relations; and Yusuf Hamied, the chairman and managing director of Cipla, a prominent Indian pharmaceutical company best known for manufacturing low cost anti-retroviral drugs to treat HIV/Aids.

Other countries have attempted to break drugs patents

  • 1997, with a growing AIDS epidemic, South Africa took on pharma by passing a law allowing it to manufacture or import cheaper generic drugs from countries which do not have drug patent laws.
  •  In 2007, Thailand issued compulsory licenses bypassing Abbott's patents on Kaletra, an advanced anti-Aids drug, and Plavix, a blood-thinning treatment to help prevent heart disease, produced by Sanofi-Aventis & Bristol-Myers Squibb. 
  • Also in 2007, Brazil's former president Lula da Silva issued a compulsory license bypassing Merck's patent on the Aids drug Efavirenz.

Source: Al Jazeera