Minister Mkhize must ensure access to cancer medicine that WHO now considers “essential”

Johannesburg (9 July 2019) — It was announced today that lenalidomide, a lifesaving medicine to treat multiple myeloma, has been included on the latest edition of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Essential Medicines List (EML).

Welcoming the inclusion of lenalidomide on the list, among 5 new cancer medicines, the Fix the Patent Laws campaign (a coalition of nearly 45 patient advocacy groups in South Africa) said the announcement offers new Health Minister Dr Zwelini Mkhize an historic opportunity to act to save lives.

“Currently, the majority of cancer patients in South Africa who could benefit from lenalidomide cannot access it due to its prohibitively high cost of ZAR R60,781 per patient per month, or ZAR 729,372 per patient for a year’s course—depriving many people of a chance at life,” said Salomé Meyer, from the Cancer Alliance.

In South Africa more than 400 new cases of multiple myeloma—a blood cancer of the plasma cells of bone marrow that can be treated with lenalidomide—are reported annually. The real number is likely to be far higher since not all cases are currently reported to the National Cancer Registry.

The current high price charged for lenalidomide in South Africa means that the government cannot afford to buy it—leaving no hope for people in need who rely on the public healthcare system. Medical schemes in the private sector are also unwilling to cover the full costs. This leaves the option for people to pay out of pocket, or go without—”it is your money or your life” continued Meyer.

In contrast in India, a year’s course is sold at a fraction of the price by a generic supplier for ZAR 28,476, less than 4% of the South African price. However, here, the government and people are currently unable to buy more affordable generic versions from India given that the patent owning company—Celgene—holds 32 secondary patents on lenalidomide that could block generic competition until 2028. These secondary patents were granted because South Africa does not actively examine patent applications to ensure only genuinely new and innovative technologies are granted patent monopolies.

“These unfair patents are simply to extend Celgene’s monopoly and keep prices high, and have been rejected in India and other countries. South Africa’s outdated patent laws are a critical factor driving the vast price difference on the same medicine,” said Lotti Rutter from Health GAP. “While we welcomed a final policy to reform these laws last year, we are still waiting for a bill from government to move the process forward and actually ensure that people have improved access to medicines on the ground. Delays to this process are costing lives.”

– What do we want

Today in South Africa we are launching the “Campaign for Access to Affordable Lenalidomide”. Echoing the demands set out in a memorandum handed to the National Department of Health in April, where Teboho Shai gave evidence of his own struggle to access this medicine, we demand that the government:

  1. Provide affordable generic medicines, including lenalidomide, for cancer treatment in the public sector;
  2. Issue compulsory licences in instances where patent barriers prevent the importation of more affordable versions of excessively priced cancer medicines;
  3. Rapidly introduce and finalise the amendments of the Patents Act in line with South Africa’s Intellectual Property Policy: Phase 1; and
  4. Ensure the efficient and transparent registration of medicines by the South African Health Products Regulation Agency (SAHPRA).

Despite being very outspoken about the unethical actions of pharmaceutical companies, former Minister of Health Dr Aaron Motsoaledi never used his powers to grant a compulsory license on a medicine, nor did he take any steps that we are aware of to improve access to lenalidomide.

“We urge Dr Mkhize to use his powers in terms of Section 4 of the Patents Act to grant a compulsory license that would allow for the importation of affordable lenalidomide,” said Sibongile Tshabalala from the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC).  “We cannot allow more people to die without accessing a medicine that may save their lives simply because our government refuses to use the powers it has in law.”


For more information contact:

Salomé Meyer (Cancer Alliance): +27 79 493 3175 |

Lotti Rutter (Health GAP): +27 82 065 5842 |   


A Fix the Patent Laws joint report with the Cancer Alliance previously highlighted the patents for lenalidomide in South Africa, illustrating how excessive patenting can inflate prices, block generic competition, and ultimately hinder medicine access. 

The excessive price of lenalidomide in South Africa is an example of the crisis of global unaffordable cancer medicines. The recent World Health Organization (WHO) Technical Report ”Pricing of cancer medicines and its impacts” highlights the impact of pricing on the availability and accessibility of cancer medicines.

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, 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, CanSir, CanSurvive Cancer Support (CanSurvive), Care for Cancer Foundation, Childhood Cancer Foundation of South Africa (CHOC), Gladiators of Hope, Hospice Palliative Care Association (HPCA), Lymphoedema Association of South Africa (LAOSA), Look Good Feel Better (LGFB), Love Your Nuts (LYN), Men’s Foundation, National Council Against Smoking, National Oncology Nursing Society of SA (NONSA), Pancreatic Cancer Network of SA (PanCaN), 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), The Sunflower Fund (TSF), VREDE Foundation for Young People with Cancer (Vrede Foundation) and Wings of Hope (WoH).

One thought on "Minister Mkhize must ensure access to cancer medicine that WHO now considers “essential”"

  1. Jayne Hewison says:

    Grateful thanks to Advocate Salome Meyer for all her hard work to keep us alive. As MM patients we have despaired that we were at the end of the road. This gives us all hope. Huge gratitude.

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