Pretoria - A patent dispute between the government and NGOs resulted in a march to the Department of Trade and Industry on Thursday, where participants delivered a memo demanding greater access to cheaper medicines.
The Fix The Patent Laws campaign has been under way for two years, and NGOs have been asking that the government amend the Patents Act to allow citizens access to life-saving drugs.
“We are fighting for the implementation of flexibility in the intellectual property law policies so we can make treatment available to more of the people we support,” said Julian Hill of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
The campaign is led by MSF, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and Section27, and has the backing of more than 130 academics, public health experts and organisations nationally and across the world.
“There are allowances for flexibilities in patent policies, but South Africa has not put those into action,” MSF’s Marcus Low said.
He said the flexibilities had been developed to allow countries to protect the health of their citizens.
Last month, the department made public its Draft National Policy on Intellectual Property, 2013, and invited the public to comment.
Thursday was the final day for public comments. Members of the three organisations, activists and members of the public made a submission emphasising the need for a review of the laws, which give a monopoly to pharmaceutical companies who patent a drug.
The aim of the campaign has been to fight against these 20-year monopolies as they mean the country cannot access cheaper and newer drugs available on the market during this period.
They also mean drugs have to be bought at prices set by the pharmacy: “They become expensive and unaffordable, and inaccessible to a large part of our society,” said Section27’s Umunyana Rugege.
The policies also meant there was no thorough examination of licensing applications.
“This can lead to the abuse of the policies,” Rugege said.
At the march on Thursday was Phumeza Tisile, who overcame drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDR), by taking the drug Linezolid for 18 months – at R676 a tablet. Tisile was taking one tablet a day.
“A generic version is available at R80 a tablet, but we cannot access it because of the existing laws,” Hill said.
She said the price of the drug meant that MSF could treat only 22 out of 300 people a day.
The drug is also not available in the public sector because of its cost.
“Everyone deserves access to treatment and health,” said Tisile, who went deaf from complications before she was given the drug.
Low said the state was obliged to make reasonable changes to its policy to ensure accessibility and treatment. “Even medical aid societies do not cover the full cost of some treatment regimes because they are so expensive,” he said.
When Department of Trade and Industry director of commercial law Simphiwe Ncwane received the memo, he said changes would be made in favour of the community in the final draft.
He acknowledged the intellectual property laws were old. “We want to make sure medication is made affordable and accessible, and we will put into place a system of extensive examination of applications.” - Pretoria News