India on Thursday rejected a patent application for the syrup form of anti-AIDS drug nevirapine. It is considered a significant victory by activists.
German drug major Boehringer Ingelheim had sought to patent the syrup, but the Indian Patent Office in New Delhi has shot down the idea.
If the patent had been granted, the cost of treatment of AIDS-affected children would have gone up steeply.
The rejection will allow generic drug companies like Aurobindo and Cipla to continue marketing low-cost versions of the medicine in the Indian market.
In May 2006, the Indian Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (INP+) and the Positive Women's Network (PWN) had filed a pre-grant opposition against the company's application.
"We opposed the patent application on nevirapine hemihydrate (syrup) to ensure that it remains available for our children and to make sure that the government doesn't say it is too expensive to provide," said, P Kousalya, president of PWN.
Nevirapine, invented in 1989, and was not patentable in India. "Accessing appropriate paediatric formulations of AIDS drugs has been a particular problem around the world, and we hope that this decision can be a step towards making them more available," said activists.
The Indian Patents Act contains some important safeguards designed to ensure that "frivolous patent applications are not granted at the cost of public health. These include section 3(d) of the Patents Act, which prevents many "new forms" of known substances from being patented unless there is a significant improvement in efficacy, and section 3(e) of the Act, which prevents "mere admixtures" of substances from being patented.
"The decision sets a good precedent," says K K Abraham, president of Indian Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (INP+). Similar groups have filed 13 applications with patent offices across the country opposing the multinational company's application. "We hope that the other patent Offices in Chennai, Kolkata and Mumbai will take note of this decision, and subject other patent applications on important medicines to strict scrutiny," Abraham said.