Pfizer's patent challenged in Delhi HC pneumonia

The government's decision to grant patent protection to pharmaceutical giant Pfizer on its pneumonia vaccine Prevnar13 (PCV13) has been opposed by public health campaigners.

The Delhi High Court is likely to hear the case on Tuesday.

The US-based drug corporation's patent claims accepted by Delhi patent office in August 2017 prevents Indian vaccine manufacturers to make cheap copies of the vaccine and sell it at a lower price. The company will enjoy the protection till 2026.

In the private healthcare sector, the vaccine costs around Rs 11,500 (three doses, each worth about Rs 3,500), while the health ministry procured the vaccine at a cost of approximately $10 (between Rs 600 and 700 for three doses) for introduction in the universal immunisation programme in three states.

A cheaper vaccine, activists claim, could save thousands of lives.

"We filed our petition opposing the patent claims in October, following which notices were served to the department of industrial promotion and policy, the patent office and Pfizer. The first hearing is scheduled for Tuesday," Leena Menghaney, a Delhi-based patent lawyer, told DH.

"The decision to give Pfizer a patent in India for this vaccine is unmerited and just a way for them to remain the only game in town by blocking more affordable pneumonia vaccines," said Kate Elder, vaccines policy advisor for Mdecins Sans Frontires (MSF), an international NGO.

In India, 3.5 lakh children under five years of age die due to pneumonia, whereas globally the disease accounted for nearly 10 lakh deaths in children under five years in 2015.

In May, the health ministry decided to give the vaccine to 21 lakh children in Himachal Pradesh and parts of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

This would be followed by introducing the shots in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in 2018.

The NGO argued that the price tag is one of the barriers to the health ministry in the rollout of the vaccine on a larger scale.

"In India, the government recently began to rollout PCV13 and has, so far, only been able to introduce it in three states, Himachal Pradesh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, due to its high price and the fact that it can't be produced and sold by other companies for cheaper," MSF said in a statement.

The upcoming patent battle comes nearly four years after another pharmaceutical giant Novartis lost its intellectual property claims on its anti-cancer drug Imatinib.

The decision, however, upset the USA industry which influenced Washington to take up the issue with New Delhi through the diplomatic channel.

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