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Today December 6 2004, French aids activist group Act Up-Paris demonstrated in front of the Indian consulate in Paris to protest against Indian Industry Minister Mr Kamal Nath, whose recent policies are threatening global access to generic medicines.

Minister Nath has announced a revision of the Indian Patents Act aiming at putting India in compliance with its WTO obligations. But Mr Nath, giving in to pressure from Washington and Western pharmaceutical companies, is proposing amendments which, if enacted, will block the manufacture and export of cheap generic drugs to AIDS-ridden countries in Africa and Asia.

Starting January 1st, the WTO expects India to grant patent monopolies on medicines to international drug companies. But India plays a unique role in global access to medicines. According to WHO, India is the world’s chief exporter of cheap generic drugs – primarily to poor nations in Africa and Asia that have no pharmaceutical capability of their own.

Due to the WTO patent process, several generics have already had to be withdrawn from Indian pharmacies, such as the generic version of anti-cancer blockbuster Gleevec, which the patent owner is selling at 57 000 dollars. Early next year, the top-selling HIV drug Combivir is expected to undergo patent protection too, even though UN agencies estimates that up to 30% of African AIDS patients receiving treatment now are using one of the Indian generics of Combivir, such as Cipla’s Duovir or Ranbaxy’s Avocom.

In this context, the survival of millions of indigent people with HIV rests on India’s continued ability to make and export cheap generic versions of new, effective HIV treatments. In 2001, the WTO recognized developing countries’s right to circumvent drug patents through a mechanism known as « compulsory licensing ». Yet Minister Nath intends to rig India’s compulsory licensing system with unlimited injunctive relief appeals that the WTO doesn’t mandate, and that the drug companies have used to stifle the issuance of any license.

The activists from Affordable Medicines Treatment Campaign in India, as well as Health GAP in the US and Act Up in France, demand that Mr Nath implement a strictly enforceable deadline of one to three months for the review of a compulsory license request, as well as the withdrawal of injunctive relief in drug company’s rights of appeal. Activists also stress that nothing is forcing India to amend its patent law in haste : most other developing countries have managed to exceed the deadlines set by WTO for complying with its patent norms.

Tomorrow Tuesday December 7, Affordable Medicines Treatment Campaign organizes a march on Parliament in Delhi to request its amendments be passed.