[Ip-health] Mail & Guardian: Patients before patents, demand health activists

Thiru Balasubramaniam thiru at keionline.org
Wed Mar 12 04:12:11 PDT 2014

HealthPatients before patents, demand health activists

11 MAR 2014 17:41 AMY GREEN <http://mg.co.za/author/amy-green>

The intellectual property policy, which will allow access to cheaper drugs,
has yet to be finalised while patients are dying, say health activists.

Activists have demanded that government provide access to cheaper medicines
for patients by finalising South Africa's long-awaited intellectual
property policy before the general elections in May.

"The policy has already been in development for six years and there has
been ample opportunity for consultation. People are dying. We can't afford
for the delays to carry on," said Lottie Rutter from the Treatment Action
Campaign (TAC).

A group of more than 1 000 activists, headed by members of the TAC,
Section27 and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) marched in the rain to the
department of trade and industry in Pretoria on Tuesday to demand the
finalisation of the policy.

The draft policy was released in September 2013 for public comment and
stakeholders had until October 4 to respond.

Tuberculosis (TB) and cancer drugs in particular are much cheaper in India
and even in developed countries such as Belgium and the United Kingdom,
said Rutter.

"Trastuzumab [a highly effective breast cancer drug] costs R550 000 per
patient for a year of treatment in South Africa, while it's much cheaper in
these other countries. There are also drugs for depression that cost 35
times more here than in India," she said.

One of the most significant reforms proposed in the draft version of the
policy is a revision of the way patents are granted.

Currently, South Africa grants patents as long as the paperwork is filed
and the fees are paid, instead of reviewing each application to see if it
meets innovation criteria, according to a press statement issued by TAC,
MSF and Section27 on Tuesday.

"Pharmaceutical companies exploit the system by making minor changes to
medicines that are already on the market, in order to gain additional
20-year patents that block competition by affordable generic versions."

The draft policy proposes stricter criteria in future examinations of
patents so fewer are granted.

The department of trade and industry has previously promised to have the
policy finalised and tabled in Cabinet before April. But the department's
director of legislation, Simphiwe Ngwane, who accepted the group's
memorandum, said there will be more delays with the finalisation of the
policy, but they hope it will be submitted to Cabinet before elections,
according to Rutter.

Department spokesperson Sidwell Medupe said he was not aware that a march
had taken place or that a memorandum had been delivered.

Section27's Mark Heywood said "outside of the health ministry, support for
this policy is lukewarm. But it is essential in terms of giving the state
power over the affordability of medicines and needs to be finalised as soon
as possible."

On Wednesday, 1 500 activists are expected to march to the department's
offices in Cape Town

Amy Green is a health reporter at the M&G's health journalism centre,

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