Profit before saving lives

2016-10-02 06:01

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Pressure is mounting on government to amend patent laws that activists say are favouring international pharmaceutical companies to keep medicines expensive for decades, denying ordinary people access to life-saving medication and causing unnecessary deaths.

Activists from 31 organisations representing public and private patients in South Africa say the current patent laws are outdated.

This week, hundreds of activists from the Fix the Patent Laws campaign marched to the department of trade and industry in Pretoria, demanding that the department take urgent steps to amend the patent laws, in line with some of South Africa’s major diplomatic partners, so that sick people can access much-needed, affordable medicines.

Patent laws are regulations designed to prevent people or companies from importing or manufacturing and selling a duplication of another company’s invention or original medicine without the permission of the patent holder or original manufacturer.

In this case, pharmaceutical companies develop a product and register it, giving them the monopoly to manufacture and supply the medicine – often for up to 25 years.

The current patent laws in South Africa give the patent holder varying years of protection against the duplication of their invention. The regulations also allow pharmaceutical companies to make minor modifications to existing drugs to get multiple patents on single medicines for more than 20 years – a process known as ever-greening.

Speaking to City Press this week, Claire Waterhouse, access campaign advocacy officer at Doctors Without Borders, said: “The current system protects huge multinational companies by allowing them monopolies on essential drugs that are needed in South Africa.

“These companies can charge whatever they wish and can continue to extend their patents through ... ever-greening, without ever being held to account in South Africa.

“If we had better patent laws, only the one that truly merited it would be granted such protection. This would mean that more generic competition would be allowed into the South African market, therefore dropping prices significantly and making medicines more accessible and affordable to people in South Africa,” she said.

Nkhensani Mavasa, national chairperson of the Treatment Action Campaign, said: “Currently, people are suffering and dying because medicines for cancer, hepatitis, tuberculosis, mental health and many other diseases are too expensive.

“While we won the fight for first-line HIV medicines [that government now distributes freely], we lost the battle for almost all other medicines,” she said.

Cassey Chambers of the SA Depression and Anxiety Group shared similar sentiments, adding: “Government has a moral, legal and constitutional obligation to ensure that everyone can access the medicines they need.

“Yet, 15 years down the line, we are still putting the profits of the pharmaceutical industry before people’s lives. South Africa signed the Doha Declaration on Public Health that gave countries the ability to change their patent laws to incorporate public health safeguards about 15 years ago. Despite this, the country is yet to include these safeguards into the patent laws.”

However, in 2013, government committed to reforming the country’s patent laws to adopt health safeguards in a draft national policy on intellectual property. In July, a new Intellectual Property Consultative Framework was released by the department of trade and industry, but activists argued that real reforms remained distant.

Countries such as India, Brazil and Argentina implemented these safeguards, which led to stricter controls in patenting of new uses, new forms, new formulations or other changes to existing molecules.

India, for example, sets a higher standard for patent protection than some countries in the emerging markets.

It limited the ability of companies to get patents for new versions of drugs whose active ingredients were previously known, unless they could show significant therapeutic benefit.

These controls led to India being regarded as one of the most robust generic markets in the world.

Waterhouse said South Africa should learn from India, Brazil and Argentina.

“[These countries] have taken advantage of the flexibilities built into international law to prioritise public health and access to medicines.

“However, South Africa has never built these into its laws and, as a result, many medicines are more expensive for us than in other countries,” she said.

She also urged government to fast-track the reform of patent law, warning that people were dying.

“We already see this happening where certain unaffordable drugs, such as trastuzumab [used to treat certain breast cancers at a cost of about R500 000 a year] are not provided in the private sector and are extremely limited in the public sector.

“This means that women who need this drug in South Africa are not receiving it for the simple reason that competition is being blocked by the patent held by the manufacturer,” Waterhouse said.

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