JOHANNESBURG/NEWYORK, JANUARY 21, 2014—The international medical humanitarian organization Doctor Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is urging the South African government to continue to stand strong against a broad, multinational pharmaceutical industry effort to undermine and delay the efforts to reform patent laws and improve access to affordable medicines.
Documents leaked last week reveal plans for a covert, large-scale public relations campaign with a US$600,000 budget, financed largely by the US-based pharmaceutical lobby.
The goal of the proposed strategy is to disrupt South Africa’s long-awaited plans to enact public health safeguards currently absent in its patent system. These changes would, among other initiatives, ensure that companies cannot unfairly extend monopolies by simply changing a drug’s formulation or combining two medicines into a single tablet, and registering a new patent for an obvious change. These practices, known as patent "evergreening," unfairly block generic competition and keep drug prices high, limiting patients’ ability to access the life-saving medicines they need, MSF said.
“Thanks to leaked documents, we know that South Africa represents ‘ground zero’ for the looming legal battles on intellectual property between pharmaceutical companies and middle-income countries seeking access to affordable medicines for their people,” said Dr. Manica Balasegaram, executive director of MSF’s Access Campaign. “Big pharma doesn’t want South Africa to reform its patent system and laws because they know other countries will follow suit.”
Countries such as Brazil and India have struck the right balance between promoting public health and access to medicines, while also protectingcompanies’ intellectual property rights by granting patents for innovative developments. South Africa’s new IP policy would modernize South Africa’s laws in line with other middle income countries and international norms, and set a positive example for other countries in Africa which are also involved in patent law reform processes, but also want to ensure patients have themedicines they need.
Because South Africa approves patents without examining their quality—granting more patents on medicines than even the U.S. and Europe—the country often cannot access generics available in other countries. Multiple patents on medicines in South Africa lead to some of the longest delays in the developing world for the introduction of generic competition.
In some cases, such as for cancer medicine imatinib, South Africa pays up to 35 times more for brand-name products than other countries pay where robust generic competition is available.
The pharmaceutical companies’ tactics to delay reform are a bid to evergreen as many drugs as possible before changes to the law go into effect. This will allow them to continue capitalizing on the market monopolies and increased profits evergreening offers.
“The effort by big pharma to undermine national patent law reform comes as little surprise, since these are the same companies that tried to deny South Africans affordable antiretroviral medicines over a decade ago in the face of an exploding HIV epidemic,” said Andrew Mews, MSF head of mission in South Africa. “History is repeating itself, with medicines to treat drug-resistant tuberculosis, cancer, and other diseases patented and priced out of reach for people and the health department.”
“We have seen outstanding results since pressuring companies into allowing generic ARVs into South— lower prices improve access and have not harmed research and development into new HIV treatments,” Mews said. “The government is now well-positioned to speed up necessary changes by passing the new policy, and improving implementation of existing patent rules as soon as possible.”