"People, not profits, must be at the centre of patent law for medicines," Tutu said on Thursday in joining South African church and healthcare workers in condemning the legal action.Novartis is challenging the refusal of a patent for the cancer drug, Gleevec, manufactured in India, on the grounds that it is a new form of an old medicine.
Should the challenge succeed, Indian companies will not be allowed to manufacture the drug.
An end to low prices
This outcome would signal the start of more stringent patent laws in India and an end to the low price trend seen up until now, said Treatment Action Campaign spokesman Nathan Geffen
"The low cost of generic drugs in India pressurises patent holders to make their prices more reasonable," he said.
"In Khayelitsha 17.4% of people on antiretroviral (ARV) treatment for five years have had to switch to second-line regimen, which costs the government over five times more than the first-line combination," said Doctors Without Borders South Africa head Eric Goemaere.
"The only reason for this price difference is that most second-line drugs are still only available from originator companies holding patents.
No more alternatives
"If Novartis succeeds in India, we won't have alternatives to brand drugs coming from India and drug prices (will) inevitably go up," he said.
Geffen said the court action would not only effect ARV's, but most medications - including those for diabetes and tuberculosis.
Doctors Without Borders said the Indian courts on Thursday heard arguments on the constitutionality of the legislation Novartis is challenging.
Novartis and 38 other pharmaceutical companies took the South African government to court in 2001 after it tried to pass legislation allowing more flexibility in the access to cheaper medicines.
It abandoned its court action amid civil society protests - something Doctors Without Borders hopes will happen this time too.
Fighting for the principle
Before its previous court appearance on January 29, Novartis told the Associated Press the company was not fighting for Gleevec, but for "the principle".
"We are deeply convinced that patents save lives. If the patent law is undermined the way it is happening in India, there will be no more investment into the discovery of lifesaving drugs," said its corporate research head Paul Herrling. – (Sapa)