Stop handing out patents – TAC

The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), Section 27 and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), have handed over a submission regarding patents to the Department of Trade and Industry in Pretoria.

Referring to their submission regarding the draft national policy on intellectual property, TAC's provincial secretary in Gauteng, Andrew Mosane, said: "This policy is not just about legal technicalities.

"It will directly affect the health and lives of many millions of people.

"By fixing the patent laws, South Africa can lower prices of existing medicines and create incentives for the development of new and improved treatments to tackle the diseases people live with every day.” 

Affordable generic versions

The joint submission notes that South Africa pays artificially inflated prices for medicines because it blindly hands out patents without examining applications to see if they meet criteria defined in the country’s Patents Act. 

This allows pharmaceutical companies to get multiple patents on the same medicine by making small changes, even when such changes have no benefit for patients.

This can block more affordable generic competitors from bringing products to a market beyond the 20 years required by international trade agreements.

MSF's access campaign officer, Julia Hill, explained:  "Competition in South Africa is not as robust as it is in many other countries and as a result, we don’t have more affordable generic versions of oral contraceptives, medicines to treat bi-polar disorder, cancer medicines and other vital drugs that are available elsewhere.

"When desperately needed drugs are too expensive, people pay both from their wallets and with their lives.”

Frivolous patents

The three organisations said they were pleased that in the draft policy, the Department of Trade and Industry also called for rigorous criteria for granting a patent and recognised the need for a patent examination system, alongside procedures that allow for opposition to frivolous patents.
Umunyana Rugege of Section 27 said: "Complementary systems like these will reduce abuse of the system by pharmaceutical companies and help to increase access to medicines.

"The policy, however, requires more detail about the practicalities of implementing these reforms.

"The DTI’s policy must also be more specific about how it will overcome legitimate patent barriers when pharmaceutical companies charge exorbitant prices.”

The cumbersome process for using legal flexibilities such as compulsory licensing has never been applied to gain access to more affordable versions of these drugs and medical aid schemes therefore opt to exclude expensive treatments for breast cancer or leukaemia from their prescribed minimum benefits, as paying for these drugs would hike up premiums for all members.

Neglected groups
The public sector is also unable to purchase some patented drugs like linezolid for the treatment of drug-resistant tuberculosis (DR-TB) because one pill in South Africa costs R676 – even though far more affordable generic versions are available from India.
South Africa’s current patent laws offer little incentive for companies to research and develop new or improved treatments.

“If  you are trying to test new combinations of patented drugs to treat HIV or TB nowadays, you have to negotiate with the rights holder, just to conduct research in South Africa,” says Hill.

“This is impractical and delays the development of better treatments for neglected groups, like children with HIV, who are not considered a profitable enough market for big pharmaceutical companies.”
South Africa is not alone in the process of undertaking patent law reform to improve access to medicines. Its BRICS partners, such as India, as well as Argentina, have already implemented a number of reforms similar to those proposed by the Department of Trade and Industry.

A patent law reform bill currently before parliament in Brazil has received widespread support, in a similar fashion to global backing for South African reforms.

Over 100 organisations and experts have signed an open letter to the DTI in the past week alone – supporting the changes called for by Medicines without Frontiers, Section 27 and the Treatment Action Campaign.

Access the entire TAC-MSF-S27 joint submission online:

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