Johannesburg - Restrictive patents on new ARV drugs are hindering their use in developing countries such as South Africa, Doctors Without Borders (DWB) said Thursday.

“The power balance has to change as developing countries begin to make use of their rights to overcome patents, when monopoly sellers price their drugs out of reach,” DWB access campaign medical director Nathan Ford said in Johannesburg.

He said most new patents for HIV drugs were being made in India, a major producer of generic drugs, and this was hindering the organisation's efforts to tackle Aids.

“For this reason, we fully support countries like India that are using their new patent laws to deal with monopoly abuses. If high prices prevent access to life-saving medicines, they override them,” Ford said.

Ford was commenting on the release of a report in Washington, DC, “Untangling the Web of Antiretroviral Price Reductions”.

The organisation said India had for the first time issued a “compulsory licence” to override a patent for a cancer drug. This would be an important precedent for expensive antiretrovirals. China had said it also had the legal means to override patents.

According to the report developing nations were being locked out of discount programmes with drug companies, leading to higher prices.

These countries were also blocked from getting pricey medicines under “voluntary license agreements” between multinational pharmaceutical companies and generic manufacturers.

“Multinational companies are trying to give the impression that with voluntary license agreements, all HIV drug access problems are solved, but our report shows that some countries are deliberately being left out, and there are other terms that restrict competition,” DWB director of policy and advocacy, Michelle Childs, said.

The organisation said while some developing countries, such as India and China, had sought ways around patents, South Africa had been prolific in issuing patents.

DWB said South Africa had issued 2442 pharmaceutical patents in 2008 alone compared, for example, to 278 issued in Brazil between 2003 and 2008.

“As more people need access to newer drugs that are priced out of reach, countries should take a close and hard look at their patent laws to make sure that monopolies aren’t being handed out left and right, with dire consequences,” Childs said. - Sapa