Parliament - South Africa's new policy to guide law reform on intellectual property rights will significantly improve access to medicines for sick South Africans, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said on Thursday.
Motsoaledi and his counterpart in trade and industry, Rob Davies, briefed journalists on the Intellectual Property Policy which was recently adopted by Cabinet.
The aim of the policy is to balance private rights with rights in South Africa's Constitution. Phase one of the policy will focus on the healthcare sector.
The policy gives effect to the 2001 Doha Declaration on the TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) which gives member states flexibility to bypass patents rights and ensure access to crucial, life-saving medicines.
Motsoaledi said it is hoped that the policy will lead to cheaper drugs for the public and private healthcare sector in South Africa.
"When the TRIPS trips flexibility was agreed upon in Doha, it was agreed that all the companies that manufacture originator drugs through research are given a 20 year patent period, meaning after 20 years anybody who has the skills could manufacture and that drug is going to be called a generic," he said.
"Now the problem is that that 20 years expired round about 2015. At the expiry of the 20 years, instead of generics following and drugs getting cheaper, the companies do what you call ever-greening - you take that drug, you just change one molecule and apply for a patent for a new drug."
Davies said one of the most important aspects of the new policy is that it would require a "system of substantive examination" of patents, something that currently does not exist because the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission (CIPC) does not have the capacity to do this.
"One of the results of this is that we have a situation in which we actually registering a number of low-quality patents. These include patents that involve something called evergreening," said Davies.
"When you register a patent, you get 20 years exclusive right to use that technology or patent...if you make a very small change that is not discernable to the registration process and register again, you get 40 years."
The policy would lay the groundwork for regulations to be put in place and laws to be passed to give effect to IP reform in South Africa. This would likely only happen after the new administration took office after the 2019 general election.
African News Agency/ANA