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Patients before patents, demand 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.


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Amy Green
Amy Green reported on health issues at the M&Gs health journalism centre, Bhekisisa, from 2013 to 2016.
Bhekisisa team
Bhekisisa Team
Health features and news from across Africa by Bhekisisa, the Mail & Guardian's health journalism centre.

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