So Many Questions: Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi

09 February 2014 - 02:02 By Chris Barron

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi says a campaign by a US lobby group against proposed changes to the South African patent law is akin to genocide.

Are you not trying to stifle legitimate debate?

No, not at all.

When you accuse the group of genocide and Satanism?

No, I was just describing what they were doing.

You were trying to bully it into silence, surely?

No, the word "Satanism", I'm sure, was just a summary of the person who was interviewing me.

You did not use it?

What I said - I read that plan of theirs - I said it is so bad, it looks like it is written by Satan himself.

Does the group not have a right to lobby against draft legislation?

Absolutely.

And engage stakeholders and politicians?

I was not attacking their right to do so; I was attacking the manner in which they were doing it - to draw up such a secret document and lie to people.

What you think is lying, the group might think is legitimate lobbying?

No, it's not. Why was it necessary to make it a secret? They were saying they were going to set up an organisation that might look to me to be represented by South Africans, but it's controlled secretly from Washington. They wanted to make it look like a political movement. Ordinary South Africans wouldn't have known [that it wasn't].

The bottom line, surely, is that the group is trying to protect the intellectual property rights of drug companies?

Nobody, not even the proposed new law, is trying to change those rights. Those issues were resolved long ago by the World Trade Organisation.

Is the aim not to weaken the current intellectual property regime in South Africa?

No. That issue was resolved by the WTO in 1995 when it came with Trips [Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights], whereby it said companies must be given 20 years' patent protection. We're not taking that away.

So the proposed law does not touch that?

No. But Trips recognised that, in health, that 20-year patent protection can lead to the death of many people if certain flexibilities are not put in line. South Africa never put those flexibilities in its law. So this [proposed law] is just to put in those flexibilities.

What flexibilities?

The first important thing is what we call "evergreening". The company is given patent protection for 20 years, but somewhere in the middle it just tweaks one molecule, change something very small and apply for a new patent as a new product.

In effect, renewing the patent for another 20 years?

Yes, just by making a small change - sometimes just the dosage. That's why a patent examination office is being proposed in the law, which they have in other countries, to determine the validity of those changes. Is it an innovation or is it just cheating?

So the new law will make it harder for drug companies to get patents?

Not necessarily harder. You're just making it fairer for everybody. In South Africa at the moment, once you tweak anything you are sure to get a patent. We've got evidence that 40% of the patents passed in South Africa were rejected in Europe and the US.

It also allows for parallel importation, does it not?

Yes, what we also call compulsory licensing.

Which, in effect, allows the government to give chosen third parties the right to undercut patent holders?

No, it's allowed by the WTO.

Are you saying this draft legislation simply brings us up to speed with other countries?

Yes. India has incorporated Trips flexibilities. That's why 80% of people on the African continent who are on ARVs are using generics from India, because it has these flexibilities. That is why India is called the pharmacy of the developing world. Why should we depend on one country being our pharmacy when we can be our own pharmacy?

Do you think the current patent system in South Africa is impeding access to cheap medicines?

Yes, definitely.

So you are blaming the high rate of tuberculosis and Aids in this country on the drug companies?

No, I am not blaming them for that. But I will blame them if they stop me from using whatever will make it possible for South Africans to do away with tuberculosis and HIV and Aids.

Is this not really, in an election year, about trying to shift blame for health problems away from the government to the drug companies?

How am I doing that? I never released any policy. It was released by the Department of Trade and Industry for all five sectors. They [the pharmaceutical lobby group in the US] chose the health sector to attack with this secretive document and, as the health minister, I need to respond. And one of my responses is how to get treatment to more people.