MSF Welcomes South African Competition Commission Decision To Promote Access To Medicines

Cape Town, 16 October 2003 - The international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) today welcomed the South African Competition Commission's unprecedented decision to find two multinational pharmaceutical companies culpable of charging excessive prices on antiretrovirals (ARVs) for the treatment of HIV and abusing their patents in such a way that restricts access to these life-extending medicines. MSF also congratulated the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and the other complainants who filed the case against GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Boehringer Ingelheim (BI) one year ago to reverse the tide of "premature, predictable, and avoidable deaths of people living with HIV/AIDS" caused by the high prices of ARVs in South Africa. More than 600 people die of HIV/AIDS each day in South Africa.

With this decision, the Competition Commission, the South African body empowered to arbitrate complaints about restrictive and abusive business practices, has cleared away patent barriers to access to medicines. This will lead to the availability of generic medicines through compulsory licensing. Generic competition has been the most reliable force in driving down the prices of needed medicines. The decision is the clearest example yet of effective implementation of the World Trade Organization's Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health.

"This decision sends a clear message that price will not stand in the way of access to antiretroviral treatment in South Africa," said Dr. Eric Goemaere, Head of Mission for MSF's AIDS programs in South Africa. "If the South African government is serious about providing ARV treatment to the half a million South Africans with HIV/AIDS who clinically need it, they must immediately take advantage of this decision. Even after recent announcements of price reductions from brand-name companies, generic medicines are the most affordable option today."

An important feature of the decision is that the Commission's approach would not require the collaboration or consent of patent holders—in this case GSK for AZT, 3TC, and AZT+3TC and BI for nevirapine—to enable generic competition. Furthermore, the decision will enable the use of fixed-dose combinations of ARVs, which are vital for scaling up access to treatment because they are easy to take and will facilitate adherence.

The Commission's decision provides a model for other developing countries to protect public health and promote access to medicines above all else.