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Campaign for Affordable Medicine Gains Ground in South Africa

JOHANNESBURG, Jun 3 2015 (IPS) - Patient and leading health organisations in South Africa have now joined a Fix the Patent Laws campaign launched in 2011 by Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) to push for reform of the country’s current patent laws.

The campaign’s promoters say that these laws severely restrict access to affordable medicines for all people living in South Africa.

The organisations which have adhered to the campaign are: People Living With Cancer (PLWC), South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), DiabetesSA, CanSurvive, SA Federation for Mental Health (SAFMH), Stop Stock Outs, Cancer Association of Southern Africa (CANSA), Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder Alliance (SABDA), South African Non-Communicable Diseases Alliance (SANCD Alliance), Marie Stopes, Epilepsy South Africa and Cape Mental Health.

Together, they are calling on the South African government to finalise a National Policy on Intellectual Property that champions measures to reduce prices and increase access to a wide range of medicines for people in need across the country.

TAC and MSF reported Jun. 1 that the expanded coalition of organisations represents public and private sector patients in South Africa seeking treatment and care for a range of cancers, mental illnesses, diabetes and other non-communicable diseases – as well as tuberculosis, HIV and sexual and reproductive health diseases.

South Africa currently grants patents on almost every patent application it receives, allowing companies to maintain lengthy monopoly periods on medicines, argues the campaign. This keeps prices of many medicines higher in South Africa than in many other countries.

According to TAC and MSF, it is estimated that 80 percent of patents granted in South Africa do not meet the country’s patentability criteria. This is largely due to the fact that patents are granted without substantive examination of applications to ensure that patentability criteria are met.

“Some cancer patients would rather go to other countries, like India, for treatment – the combined cost of the flight, medical services and drugs is cheaper than buying the drugs alone in South Africa,” said Bernice Lass of cancer group, CanSurvive.

Linda Greeff of PLWC said that her organisation was supporting the campaign because “we want to ensure that there is proper scrutiny of patent applications before patents are granted. We want a patent granting process that is ethical and transparent, so that more people can access the medicines that they need.”

According to Cassey Chambers of SADAG, the group deals with “patients every day who cannot afford medication or treatment, and as a result become more depressed, helpless, hopeless and even suicidal in some cases.”

DiabetesSA’s Keegan Hall stressed that as health organisations, “we have an obligation to take steps to improve affordability and access to medicines. The cost of insulin and other diabetes management tools are far too expensive for many patients,” Hall added.

Health organisations joining the Fix the Patent Laws campaign say that they recognise the opportunity South Africa has to improve access to medicines for all diseases through reforming problematic patent laws.

South Africa’s Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) has already embarked on the process of legislative reform, releasing a Draft National Policy on Intellectual Property for public comment in 2013. The draft policy contained important commitments to reform the laws in order to restore the balance between public and private interest, in favour of people’s health.

The Fix the Patent Laws campaign coalition is calling for urgent approval of a finalised National Policy on Intellectual Property, as a critical first step toward reform of problematic patent laws and practices that deprive people living in South Africa of more affordable treatments for all conditions.

It notes that as a member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), South Africa is required to uphold minimum standards of intellectual property protection as defined by the international Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). This includes granting 20-year patents on medicines.

However, South Africa also has significant flexibility under TRIPS to amend national legislation in order to improve access to medicines. According to the health organisations, reforms could include the government taking measures to limit abusive patents being granted on medicines.

At the same time, it says, government could establish easier procedures for overcoming legitimate patent barriers when medicines are unaffordable, unavailable or not adapted for patient needs.

Edited by Phil Harris   

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