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Aid groups slam Indian patent law

NEW DELHI -- International aid groups criticized India's passage yesterday 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 antiretroviral 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 yesterday by Parliament's upper house. On Tuesday, 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.

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