South Africa, Pharmaceutical Industry Face Off on Patent Reform

30 January 2014

South Africa's efforts to reform its intellectual property (IP) regime in order to improve access to medicines has sparked a firestorm in recent weeks, with major pharmaceutical companies openly at odds with civil society and developing countries.

The draft IP policy was published last September, with Pretoria now taking steps toward its eventual implementation. The changes would establish a system of substantive patent examination, and would also strengthen  the existing criteria for "patentability." These revisions, proponents say, would make it easier for generic drugs to compete in a market that has long been dominated by the research-based pharmaceutical industry.

"The current system allows pharmaceutical companies to obtain multiple patents on the same drug, even for inventions that do not fall under the country's definition of innovation," various civil society organisations have said in advocating for the reform.

The existing regime, they added, thus allows these companies to extend their monopolies and charge inflated prices for medicines, while making it difficult for generic manufacturers to compete.

However, the leak soon thereafter of a memo aimed at helping major drug companies undermine the proposed change has escalated the row, with South African Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi openly comparing the industry campaign to "genocide."

Civil society, developing countries weigh in

Several developing countries, along with a coalition of civil society groups, have spoken up in support of South Africa, most recently during last week's meeting of the World Health Organization's (WHO) Executive Board.

The industry response is "unacceptable in a country facing one of the world's most acute HIV and [tuberculosis] epidemics," Médecins Sans Frontières said at the meeting, noting that medicine prices in South Africa are up to 35 times higher than in countries where generics have a greater market share.

Some civil society organisations have formally called on the WHO Executive Board to adopt a resolution expressing solidarity with the African country.

WHO Director -General Margaret Chan has similarly expressed her concern, saying that "no government should be intimidated by interested parties for doing the right thing in public health."

ICTSD reporting; "South Africa slams Big Pharma in generic drugs row," REUTERS, 17 January 2014; "WHO Chief: No Government Should Be Intimidated For Doing "Right Thing" In Public Health," IP-WATCH, 24 January 2014; "New Draft South African IP Policy Receives Initial Positive Reactions," IP-Watch, 9 September 2013.

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