Transnational mobilisation on access to medicines: The global movement around the imatinib mesylate case and its roots in the AIDS movement

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University of Cape Town

Starting in 2006, a patent dispute emerged in India with significant implications for global access to medicine. An application by Novartis for a 'new formulation' patent on the beta crystalline form of the cancer drug imatinib mesylate was rejected. Novartis responded by challenging the legality of provisions designed to protect access to medicines in India's patent legislation. A global activist movement emerged in defence of these aspects of Indian patent legislation mainly because the challenge threatened access to medicine at a systemic level, given India's critical role as a supplier of generic medicines to developing countries. The mobilisation described in this paper exploited existing activist networks and broader 'networks of influence' built during prior campaigns conducted around access to antiretroviral drugs. AIDS activists consequently played a key role in the global mobilisation around the imatinib mesylate dispute, aimed at generating public outrage and political pressure against Novartis's challenge to Indian patent law. A critical 'broker' in these transnational networks is identified as the medical charity M�dicins sans Fronti�res (MSF), and specifically its dedicated medicines access campaign, which linked disparate activist groups together, disseminated information and mobilised AIDS activists across the world in support of the Indian patent flexibilities. In 2013 the Indian Supreme Court upheld the relevant sections of the law, representing a significant victory for the international medicines access movement. This movement illustrates the power of transnational mobilisation to help bring about 'moral consensus' and to deploy influence and social power at the global level sufficient to overcome substantial corporate power. But we also argue that both the emergence of the 'global AIDS movement' and the emergence of a transnational social movement around the imatinib mesylate dispute depended on a set of historical circumstances that are unlikely to persist and that the broader medicines access movement therefore faces significant challenges to its sustainability and future success.