Campaign against patent laws ‘causing barriers’ to life saving Covid-19, TB, HIV and cancer drugs

Activists from the ​​Fix The Patent Laws Campaign (FTPL) marched to the department of trade, industry and competition to urge the government to reform intellectual property laws to improve access to lifesaving medicines for Covid-19 and other life threatening diseases.

The organisation says patents are barriers to affordable medicine for severe diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV, mental health, diabetes and cancer.

In a statement, it said a full course of bendamustine to treat lymphoma cancer costs R50 616 and is unavailable in the public sector because of its price. In India, the FTPL said, generics for this medicine cost R9 024 but because of South Africa’s outdated patent laws, prices are out of reach.

The organisation wants Trade Minister Ebrahim Patel to publish amendments to the Patent Act. It argues that patents are limiting equal access to Covid-19 vaccines and treatments. Moderna, for example, has not registered its mRNA vaccine with the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (Saphra), nor has it delivered a single vaccine dose to Africa, but two of its patents have been accepted by the South African Patents Office.

The FTPL said it was concerned that, should the pandemic continue for longer than another year, as predicted by scientists, vaccine boosters will be needed and patents will push vaccine prices up. 

It said that should Moderna register its vaccine with Saphra, South Africa will not be able to develop manufacturing capacity through the Tech Transfer Hub.

“These patents, which include broad protection for components of mRNA vaccines, have been rejected by at least 11 countries because the patents would unreasonably limit access to the life-saving medicine,” the statement reads.

“In South Africa, these patents were automatically accepted because we do not have a patent examination system. The FTPL calls on the government to use this pandemic as an opportunity to strengthen our patent examination system on pharmaceutical patents so that we put people and public health first.”

Although the organisation acknowledged that the government has made an admirable effort to secure Covid-19 vaccines through the World Trade Organisation’s agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights waiver, it said this was not enough. The FTPL wants a change to the Patent Act so that medication for all illnesses is affordable for all South Africans.

The organisation demands that Patel:

  • Use his constitutional powers to issue compulsory licenses for Covid-19 treatments and vaccines; 
  • Review the legal status of patent applications on all Covid-19 medical technologies, including granted or pending applications on Moderna’s mRNA vaccine;
  • Provide strict examination of all patents for pharmaceutical products so that patents are not automatically granted for life-saving medicines, which limits supply and increases prices of these medicines; and
  • Develop an easy-to-use administrative process to enable third party organisations to challenge pharmaceutical patents.

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Eyaaz Matwadia
Eyaaz Matwadia
Eyaaz Matwadia is a member of the Mail & Guardian's online team.

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