Fix the Patent Laws Campaign demands urgent release of bill to save lives

23 April, Johannesburg — In 2018, Cabinet adopted the South African Policy on Intellectual Property, Phase 1. It heralded a new era in medicine access. Yet three years later and nothing has changed in the lives of people in South Africa, who right now continue to need medicines that remain unaffordable and out of reach.

“The law reform process has taken far too long already. As a matter of urgency the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (dtic) must release a bill to amend the relevant Acts and parliament must prioritise the passing of this bill. The IP policy outlined many reforms that would prioritise people’s constitutionally guaranteed right to access healthcare, yet to date our laws remain outdated. Whether the state can deliver the required legislative changes will be a test of its commitment to people’s health,” said Umunyana Rugege, from SECTION27.

On 18 March 2021, the Fix the Patent Laws campaign marched to the dtic to demand that Minister Patel urgently release draft legislation for public comment, and then table the bill in parliament. Minister Patel’s Chief of Staff, Mr Moosa Ebrahim, received and signed our memorandum, which called for a response by 31March 2021. One month later and we have yet to hear from anyone at the dtic.

While ongoing and unnecessary delays mark the domestic law reform process, globally South Africa is championing a plan to improve access to COVID-19 health technologies together with India. The proposal to waive patents on medicines, vaccines and other health products for COVID-19 has now been supported by over 100 low and middle income countries as well as 175 former heads of state and Nobel Prize winners, including Gordon Brown, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Francoise Hollande. We commend the government for its progressive stance in the global arena, but this is only one part of the puzzle to improve access to medicines. South Africa needs to urgently fix its own patent laws now to increase access to medicines,vaccines and medical tools at home.

“Internationally our government is campaigning for better access to COVID-19 technologies, yet at home its delays are putting our people’s lives at risk. While COVID-19 highlights the urgency of the reforms needed, it is only one disease amongst many. People with many other diseases and conditions, including cancer, TB, and diabetes, are all affected by similar challenges in accessing affordable medicines and medical tools as a result of patent barriers,” said Sibongile Tshabalala, from the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC).

The availability of bendamustine, a treatment to cure lymphoma, is an example of this. A new factsheet by the Cancer Alliance, a member of the Fix the Patent Laws campaign, reveals that this lifesaving medicine is unavailable in the public sector due to its high price, driven by unwarranted patents. This is despite it being listed on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) essential medicine list. A disease disproportionally affecting people living with HIV, it is critical that bendamustine be made available to those in need, yet government cannot afford to procure it.

“Currently, most patients who could benefit from bendamustine cannot access it due to its sky-high price of ZAR 50 616.00 per patient for a full course treatment of which lasts about 6 months. Lymphoma is a curable disease, but many people are being robbed unnecessarily at this chance of life,” said Gcinashe Nqabeni, from the Cancer Alliance.

“The South African government has a moral, legal and Constitutional obligation to take reasonable steps to achieve the progressive realisation of the right to health. We call on government to urgently release for public comment draft legislation to Fix the Patent Laws in South Africa as part of this obligation.”

Ends

To arrange interviews please contact:

Kate Stegeman | Kate.Stegeman@joburg.msf.org | 079 527 1921

Gcinashe Nqabeni | advocacy2@canceralliance.co.za | 079 777 3067

Editor’s Note:

The Fix the Patent Laws coalition will host a webinar with activists from India and South Africa to discuss overcoming legal and other barriers to accessing medical tools and technologies on 29 April 2021 at 11:00 CAT, ahead of the World Trade Organisation’s next TRIPS Council meeting on 30 April 2021. Register here to attend. 

Fix the Patent Laws is a joint coalition of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), Doctors Without Borders (MSF), SECTION27, Cape Mental Health (CMH), Diabetes SA, Epilepsy SA, Health GAP, Marie Stopes South Africa, People’s Health Movement (PHM), Rural Health Advocacy Project (RHAP), the Stop Stock Outs Project (SSP), the Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorders Alliance (SABDA), the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), the South African Federation of Mental Health (SAFMH), the South African Non-Communicable Diseases Alliance (SANCD Alliance) and the Cancer Alliance including Advocates for Breast Cancer; amaBele Project Flamingo, Ari’s Cancer Foundation, Breast Course 4 Nurses (BCN), Breast Health Foundation (BHF), Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA), Cancer Heroes, CanSurvive Cancer Support (CanSurvive), Care for Cancer Foundation, Childhood Cancer Foundation of South Africa (CHOC), Gladiators of Hope, Glynnis Gale Foundation UK, Hospice Palliative Care Association (HPCA), Look Good Feel Better (LGFB), Love Your Nuts (LYN), Lymphoedema Association of South Africa (LAOSA), Machi Filotimo Cancer Project, Men’s Foundation, National Council Against Smoking, National Oncology Nursing Society of SA (NONSA), People Living With Cancer (PLWC), the Pink Parasol Project, Pink Trees for Pauline (Pink Trees), Pocket Cancer Support, Rainbows and Smiles, Reach for Recovery (R4R), South African Oncology Social Workers’ Forum (SAOSWF), South Africa United Against Cancer (SAUAC), The Sunflower Fund (TSF), and Wings of Hope (WoH).

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