SA wins fight for cheaper HIV treatment
The Department of Health has, with the help of an NGO, forced a drug company to relax its patent on an important ARV drug.
Last year Abbvie, the HIV division of pharmaceutical company Abbot, could not meet demand for Aluvia, a second-line ARV for HIV patients who no longer responded to their originally prescribed treatment.
South Africa supplies Aluvia to about 300000 people a month, making it the biggest buyer of the drug in the world. Without it, patients are in danger of dying.
Abbvie, which holds the patent for the life-saving drug, has been unable to meet global demand.
Because of this, the Department of Health asked the company to allow others to make the drug. It threatened to source the drug from other suppliers.
Such parallel importation is legal under international law. However, trade treaties between countries often prohibit parallel importation so it is seldom resorted to. South Africa has never used parallel importation to source cheaper drugs.
Anban Pillay, the deputy director-general of the department, said that, in desperation, the Swiss NGO The Medicines Patent Pool had been asked to plead with the drug company to relax its patent rights.
Abbvie agreed and issued licences to other drug companies to make Aluvia. Pillay said this had alleviated the local drug shortages - but the companies licensed by Abbvie were charging more for the drug.
"They say they cannot make it for as little as the original manufacturer. What can we do?"
The threat of litigation and appeals to Abbvie were discussed at the UN Panel on Medicines in Johannesburg recently. The panel was set up by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to discuss the lack of access of drugs.
Battistina Tania Ghianim, public affairs head of Abbvie, denied that the drug company had been forced to relax its patent rights.
João Carapinha, a market access scientist based in London, said problems were caused by the Department of Health's inability to forecast the quantity of drugs it would need.
"Parallel importation is designed to improve price negotiations but is not a long-term fix for failures in the supply chain. It appears that the Department of Health and civil society are proposing to use a sledge hammer to crack a nut.
"The case of Aluvia is suggestive that the supply chain in South Africa desperately needs reforming - better [ co-ordination of] demand and supply, and deployment of newer technology."