Activists applaud policy to make lifesaving drugs affordable

Author: Tamar Kahn

Source: Business Day

Without the reforms, many medicines for cancer, hepatitis, tuberculosis and mental health will remain unaffordable or unavailable in SA, says coalition.

Health activists have welcomed the Department of Trade and Industry’s latest draft intellectual property policy, released for public comment last week, saying it contains important reforms that will make life-saving medicines cheaper and more widely available.

Key proposals include closer scrutiny of patent applications, simpler mechanisms for issuing compulsory licences, and tightening up on the criteria for granting patents.

Without these reforms, many medicines for cancer, hepatitis, tuberculosis and mental health will remain unaffordable or unavailable in SA, said the Fix the Patent Laws coalition. It cited the hepatitis B medicine Entecavir as an example of a medicine that is too costly for the state, and available only to a limited number of patients in the private sector, where a month’s supply costs R5,500.

The same drug is available in India at less than a 10th of the price, said the coalition.

“SA is definitely heading towards … a more assertive stance to getting medicines to its people,” said Doctors Without Borders Access Campaign advocacy officer Claire Waterhouse.

The policy was published in the government gazette on August 8, and interested parties have 60 days to comment.

It says the government will implement reforms to its intellectual property regime in phases. Phase one covers intellectual property and public health, co-ordination in international forums and implementation of commitments made in international agreements.

Key reforms include the introduction of substantive search and examination for patents, which would see officials carefully scrutinise patent applications for novelty and innovation, and provisions for both pre-and post-grant opposition. SA has a depository system that effectively rubber-stamps patent applications, and patents can be challenged only after they have been granted.

The policy document says SA grants a far higher proportion of patent applications than virtually any other country, to the detriment of society and industry alike. The policy says a “workable” compulsory licensing system needs to be put in place, and recommends introducing a nonjudicial mechanism for awarding such licences.

If a government issues a compulsory licence, as in Brazil and Thailand, it effectively gives companies the right to make their own versions of a patent-protected product.

A copy of the draft policy document is available from: