A call for a compulsory licence (CL) on Novartis blood cancer drug Gleevec has been made by Colombian civil society groups at a World Health Organisation meeting, in Geneva, that India is chairing.

In an open letter to Bhanu Pratap Sharma, India’s Health Secretary who chairs the discussion, civil society groups Ifarma Foundation, Misión Salud and CIMUN have drawn attention to an issue they face in Colombia.

“Since November 2014, the undersigned organisations have been requesting the Ministry of Health of Colombia to declare the access to Imatinib (Gleevec(R)) of public interest with compulsory licence purposes,” a note from the organisations said.

After 15 months of an extended process, the ministry acknowledged that access to Imatinib is a matter of public interest, a prerequisite to move to a CL, the letter added.

“Nevertheless, there is enormous pressure from developed countries, Big Pharma and even Colombian trade authorities trying to block the public interest declaration and the compulsory licence. It combines inaccuracies, distortions of international trade rules and even threats of trade claims under the dispute settlement mechanism,” the letter said.

Third party A CL allows a government to get a third party to make a drug in the interest of public health. The third party would in turn have to pay a royalty to the innovator for making versions of its drug which it would sell at a much lower price.

Glivec is not an unfamiliar drug in India. It went through a long and litigious journey under the amended Patents Act (2005) here. The Supreme Court eventually dismissed the company’s plea for patent protection on the drug. India, however, did issue a CL on another drug, Bayer’s advanced kidney cancer drug Nexavar. Natco was allowed to make the drug at a lesser price, but on payment of a royalty to Bayer.

The WHO’s Consultative Expert Working Group on Research and Development: Financing and Coordination (CEWG) meet is presently underway in Geneva.