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International aid groups criticized India’s passage on Wednesday of a new patent law ending the decades-old practice of allowing domestic drug companies to make low-cost copies of expensive Western medicines, saying millions of poor people across the world will be affected. The changes in patent rights stem from India’s membership in the World Trade Organization, which enhances the country’s participation in global trade but requires it to enforce stricter patent rules for its $5 billion pharmaceutical industry. International aid groups said the new law will curb the supply of cheap generic drugs to impoverished nations, threatening the survival of AIDS and cancer patients there. Some 50 percent of 700,000 HIV patients taking anti-retroviral medicines in Africa, Asia and Latin America rely on low-cost drugs from India. A month’s dose of a generic AIDS drug cocktail costs $30, or 5 percent of similar drugs sold by Western producers. “Because India is one of the world’s biggest producers of generic drugs, this law will have a severe knock-on effect on many developing countries which depend on imported generic drugs from India,” said Samar Verma, regional policy adviser at Oxfam International. The Paris-based Doctors Without Borders described the Indian move as “the beginning of the end of affordable generics.” Multinational drug companies welcomed the decision. It “will move India toward the patent mainstream and support and encourage innovation and investment in research and development in India,” said Ranjit Sahani, managing director of Novartis India. The bill was approved on Wednesday by Parliament’s upper house. On March 22, it was ratified by the powerful lower house after the government agreed to last-minute changes demanded by leftist allies to placate fears that multinational companies could extend the duration of their patents indefinitely and gain dominance of India’s market. The amendments sought to tighten the definition of “new inventions” to prevent drug companies from winning new patents by making minor changes to existing drugs. The law also allows patents to be challenged even before they are granted — a move opposed by multinationals but long demanded by the domestic industry. Officials also allayed fears that the new law will push up prices of essential medicines. Jairam Ramesh, the governing Congress party’s economic adviser, said more than 90 percent of essential medicines currently sold in the country are generic products with expired patents. Also, nothing in the new law prevents the government from setting caps on prices of new essential drugs in the future, Ramesh said. Ellen’t Hoen of Doctors Without Borders, who led representatives from more than two dozen aid groups, said the bill was still vague in many respects and allowed for abuses by multinational companies. “We are deeply disturbed and concerned that you are failing to listen to the voices of your people who have entrusted you with their welfare, not to mention the poor in the developing world who rely on affordable medicine from India,” the aid groups said in a letter to Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the governing coalition. A key concern relates to the government’s ability to override patents on medicines that a large number of people need, but can’t afford to buy. The bill says the government must wait at least three years before this is allowed, except in a national emergency. Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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