SA patent laws stifle medical research: activists

17 October 2013 - 15:53 By Sapa
Pills . File photo.
Pills . File photo.
Image: File photo

Health activists protested in Pretoria on Thursday, calling for radical reform of South Africa's patent laws on medicine.

Amendment to the patent legislation would dramatically increase access to cheaper medicines, the Fix the Patent Laws Campaign coalition said.

It consists of activists from the Treatment Action Campaign, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), and Section 27.

"We are fighting for these flexible IP [intellectual property] policies to be public policies in South Africa, because the medicines that we need are too expensive or we can't get the more affordable versions [owing to patent laws]," MSF spokeswoman Julia Hill said.

"Today, if you are trying to test new combinations of patented drugs to treat HIV or [tuberculosis], you have to negotiate with the rights holder just to conduct research in South Africa.

"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."

The activists, who wore blindfolds and waved placards, gathered at the trade and industry department's (dti) offices in Sunnyside, eastern Pretoria.

They handed the department a submission, which they claimed was supported by over 130 international organisations and experts, contributing to the dti draft national policy on intellectual property. It was released for public comment on September 4.

In it, they said South Africa paid artificially-inflated prices for medicines because the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission, an agency of the dti, blindly handed out patents without examining the applications to check if they met criteria defined in the Patents Act.

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

As a result, more affordable, generic competitors were blocked from bringing products to the South African market beyond the 20 years required by international trade agreements.

"In South Africa, competition is not as robust as it is in many other countries. 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," said Hill.

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