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Health activists condemn Big Pharma move to block South Africa IPR policy

Friday, 17 January, 2014

The South African Health Minister, Aaron Motsoaledi, and health activists around the world have today condemned major pharmaceutical companies (Big Pharma) for conspiring to covertly block legislation that would increase  access to affordable medicines for the country. Documents penned by a powerful US lobbying firm were leaked which detail plans to indirectly influence the South African government to strengthen intellectual property laws, thus having a major impact on the production of generic medicines – particularly antiretrovirals (ARVs) for the treatment of HIV.

In September 2013, a draft policy document on intellectual policy was released that limits the rights of Big Pharma, emphasising in particular access to essential medicines. In essence, the policy asks Big Pharma to put the needs of the consumers above the needs of their intellectual property. The draft policy includes greater use of compulsory licensing and ensuring that evergreening [making slight alterations on existing drugs whose patents are about to expire so profits can be protected for a further 20 years] is restricted – a move welcomed by key advocating organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières and Treatment Action Campaign (TAC).

South Africa’s Mail & Guardian report that the documents obtained were commissioned by a coalition of Big Pharma firms with operations in South Africa, organised under the Innovative Pharmaceutical Association of South Africa (IPASA). The lobbying firm behind the proposal, Public Affairs Engagement (PAE), sets out a $450,000 strategy that will involve setting up a coalition of well-known and respected figures based in South Africa, but managed from the US, to influence the population and decision-makers. The strategy also calls for: “commissioning ‘independent’ research and opinion pieces for broad public disseminations – but vetting all such material before publication to ensure it fits the message.”

Motsoaledi was furious with the proposed plan, and vowed to throw all of his weight behind ensuring it did not come to fruition. In particular, the plan would impact upon South Africa’s ability to expand access to ARVs for people living with HIV, he commented, “this document can sentence many South Africans to death. That is no exaggeration. This is a plan for genocide.” TAC stated that they are “outraged over what appears to be a covert and well-funded plan from the foreign pharmaceutical industry to delay an essential law reform process in South Africa.” Advocates are now calling on the draft policy document to be finalised to ensure essential access to medicines.

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