Brazil judge suspends drug patent extensions, move may lower COVID-19 treatment costs

A nurse holds balloons during a protest asking for COVID-19 vaccines and in favour of SUS (Unique Health System) during World Health Day in Brasilia, Brazil

A Brazilian Supreme Court judge on Wednesday suspended extensions of drug patents in the country, a preliminary decision that could lower costs for drugs critical to treating COVID-19 patients at the expense of pharmaceutical firms.

Justice Dias Toffoli cited the “public health emergency arising from COVID-19” in his ruling. The ruling, which takes effect immediately, must still go before the full Supreme Court for consideration and could be reversed.

The case was originally set to be considered by the court on Wednesday but was later pulled from the agenda for proceedings.

In the case, federal prosecutors asked the Supreme Court to reconsider parts of Brazil’s Industrial Property Law, saying it protects patents for an “excessive time period,” harming “social interest.”

The lawsuit was launched in 2016, and the country’s top prosecutor, Augusto Aras, asked the Supreme Court in February for an urgent ruling, arguing for the need to allow more generic drugs to treat COVID-19.

“When patents are still in effect, it is impossible to produce generics to treat the coronavirus and its variants,” said the filing by Aras.

Companies defending the current law say the extended lifetime of a patent is important to compensate companies for their investments in research and development of new drugs, pesticides and other controlled substances.

Brazilian law protects drug patents for 20 years, allowing a renewal for another 10 years. The period is counted from the date of a patent application, rather than when it is granted. Drugmakers argue that long wait times for approval make the extensions necessary to justify their investments.

The Affordable Medicines Movement, which lobbies for lower drug prices, says extension of patents contributes to higher prices and less availability of drugs. The group said scrapping the extensions would lower costs for a drug used when intubating patients and a type of blood thinner used for treating COVID-19.

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