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India's Patent Controversy

Patent committee chairman resigns following criticism

by Jean-François Tremblay
March 26, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 13

THE CHAIRMAN of an influential committee advising the Indian government on whether to strengthen the country's pharmaceutical patent law has resigned. Raghunath A. Mashelkar said he has been "pained" by questions on his integrity "from certain sections of society, industry, and the media."

One of India's most prominent scientists, Mashelkar spent 12 years as director of the Council for Scientific & Industrial Research, India's main network of national labs.

In a report released in December, his patent committee stated that India needs to strengthen its newly reformed patent law in order to comply with its obligations as a member of the World Trade Organization. But last month, Mashelkar requested that the committee be permitted to resubmit its report because some parts had been plagiarized (C&EN, March 5, page 30).

Drug patenting is controversial in India. Many claim that stricter rules will make drugs too expensive for poor people. But others say tighter patent laws will improve the availability of drugs.

In his letter of resignation, Mashelkar recalled chairing 12 committees over the years that made recommendations on a host of controversial issues. He said that "never before" had he faced such difficulties as committee chairman. Mashelkar added that the remaining members of the patent committee are "easily" capable of resubmitting the report.

Mukund S. Chorghade, president of the Massachusetts-based contract research firm Thinq Pharma and a former Mashelkar collaborator, says Mashelkar suffered his worst attack when a member of Parliament called him an "antinational element." Chorghade calls the slur "an extraordinarily ridiculous statement."

The controversy over the report could also take its toll on the Swiss drugmaker Novartis, which has been appealing an Indian government decision that its leukemia drug Gleevec is not novel enough to receive patent protection. Yusuf K. Hamied, chairman of the generic drug producer Cipla and a fierce opponent of tighter patent laws, claims that the withdrawal of the Mashelkar report, even temporarily, will prevent Novartis from winning its case. "With the Mashelkar report, they could have won, or they would have," he says. "But not now."



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