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Why Saiba supports the call for waiving drug patent laws

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By Nicolaas van Wyk and Ciaran Ryan

An expanding network of health rights groups are pushing for a change to the patent laws to make critical drugs available to the South Africans.

As we reported in Accounting Weekly, Saiba is all for profit, but not when it comes to ensuring the safety of South Africans faced with an existential threat to their health and their livelihoods.

We called for pharmaceutical companies to make their Covid vaccines freely available to the world. Covid should not be treated as an opportunity for profit.

We are heartened to see this call gaining traction from a variety of groups, including the SA government, which together with India lobbied the World Trade Organisations TRIPS Council to waive certain provisions of TRIPS (the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights). This would have made it easier and cheaper to produce life-saving vaccines locally, but the proposal was shot down by wealthy nations such as the US, UK and Europe, who argued this would stifle innovation.

It seems the calls for open source vaccines will not die quietly, and that is a good thing. Negotiations with WTO are still ongoing, despite the objections of wealthy nations. There is widespread support from other developing nations, as well as several European politicians.

The Fix the Patent Law (FTPL) Campaign represented by the Cancer Alliance, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the People’s Health Movement, SECTION27 and the Treatment Action Campaign, stands behind the South African government in its efforts to ensure that developing and middle-income countries are not left behind in the race to secure Covid-19 medicines while wealthy countries secure deals with pharmaceutical companies.

Speaking to Accounting Weekly, SECTION27’s Julia Chaskalson says the current patent regime is outdated in terms of access to essential and life-saving drugs for Covid, HIV, cancer and TB, to name a few.

“Pharmaceutical companies have developed ways of extending or evergreening their patents by making slight modifications. They argue that patent protections encourage innovation and allow them to develop new drugs which would not happen if these protections were not in place. What this does not take into account is the large amount of public funding that goes into this innovation.”

In February this year, 14 European parliamentarians addressed a letter to the EU in support of SA’s and India’s call for a waiver on intellectual property right. The letter states: “South Africa and India sent a joint proposal to the World Trade Organization requesting an exemption from patents and other intellectual property rights concerning drugs, vaccines, diagnostics, personal protective equipment, and other medical technologies throughout the pandemic and this proposal is still pending.”

They added: “We ask the European Union to evaluate to support the adoption of a moratorium that allows the suspension of patents and the sharing of technology, data, know-how, allowing generics manufacturers to contribute to increasing global availability, including through support for India and South Africa’s proposal at the WTO.”

The FTPL campaign wants the patent laws amended to make drugs for many other diseases, in addition to Covid, available to millions of people who need them.

“International intellectual property reform is only the beginning and limited to Covid-19. We need sustained patent reform to improve access to medicines not only for Covid-19 but also HIV, Tuberculosis and cancer, to name a few. The Department of Trade, Industry and Competition must reform South Africa’s intellectual property regime to ensure equitable access to life-saving medical products now,” says FTPL in a statement.

The FTPL campaign is calling for:

  • Put a temporary moratorium on granting patents on Covid-19 related products as they are proven effective.
  • Automatic compulsory licensing of Covid-19 related health products with existing or pending patents.
  • Fix the patent laws urgently to ensure the use of all legal flexibilities to improve access to all health products now and in the long term.

Saiba, as a responsible professional body, has a strong interest in seeing this campaign succeed. The sooner we can secure the health and safety of the country, the quicker we can return to normal work patterns.

As we wrote in February: “It seems unconscionable that pharmaceutical companies are using this pandemic as an opportunity for profit. The PR Spin is that these vaccines are being made available at very low cost to developing countries, but that is a bit hard to believe. If these pharmaceutical companies want to be taken seriously on this, then make the vaccine patents available to the world. Let other countries produce the vaccines themselves at the lowest possible cost, and let Big Pharma wallow in the glory of having rescued the world from an existential health threat.

“If this is the greatest health crisis in history – which it isn’t – then SA should lobby aggressively for access to these patents on an open source basis.”

We therefore support the SA and Indian governments in their efforts to waive certain provisions of the TRIPS agreement, and the FTPL campaign in its efforts to amend patent laws in the interests of making vaccines and other life-saving drugs more freely available to the millions of South Africans that need them, now and in the future.