In a recent interview, the Health Minister of South Africa (SA) Mr. Aaron Motsoaledi reportedly made the above comment.
As reported in the interview and also indicated in an article in this blog, the Trade and Industry Department of SA, on September 4, 2013, published a long-awaited draft national policy on Intellectual Property (IP) in the Government Gazette. In that draft policy, the department recommended, besides others, the following:
- Provision should be made for the Compulsory Licensing (CL) of crucial drugs.
- Provision should be made for the parallel importation of drugs.
- Grant of drug patents should ensure that the drug is new or innovative.
- “Patent flexibility” for medicine should be made a matter of law.
- The holders of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), such as drug companies, should be encouraged to protect their own rights rather than depending on state institutions, such as the police or customs.
- SA should seek to influence the region, and the world, to move towards its vision of Intellectual Property (IP) protection.
The draft does not have the status of a policy, as yet, and was open for public comment.
Pharma MNC moved surreptitiously:
Pharma MNCs having local operations being flabbergasted by this development, almost immediately, started working on a plan to change the direction of the policy radically, the report states. Instead of optimal protection for drug patents, they planned to seek stronger protection.
Having finalized the counter strategy this month, the local MNC pharma association, ‘Innovative Pharmaceutical Association of South Africa (Ipasa)’, reportedly selected a Washington DC-based lobbying firm ‘Public Affairs Engagement (PAE)’, headed by a former US ambassador – Mr. James Glassman, to lead the charge against the policy. PAE, by now, has put forward a proposal on how it would effect radical changes to the policy, the report stated.
The same article mentions, PAE intends to launch a persuasive campaign throughout Africa and in Europe with an aim to convince the South African Government to further strengthen, rather than weaken, patent protection for drugs. The grand plan of PAE contains elements, which could seriously bother many right thinking individuals, as it includes:
- Setting up a “coalition” with an innocuous name such as “Forward South Africa (FSA)”, which will be directed from Washington DC, while appearing to be locally run in SA.
- Encouraging other African countries, especially Rwanda and Tanzania, to help convincing SA that it could lose its leadership role in the continent, if it decides to push ahead with the draft policy.
- Distracting NGOs from their own lobbying by changing the nature of the debate.
- Commissioning seemingly “independent” research and opinion pieces for broad public dissemination – but vetting all such material before publication to ensure those fit the messages.
Creation of surrogate public faces:
It is worth noting from the report that the so called coalition ‘FSA’, the proposed public face of the campaign, would be “led by a visible South African, most likely a respected former government official, business leader or academic”. However, at the same time, it would be “directed by staff from PAE and its South African partner”.
Majority funding by an American association in SA:
The report also highlights, nothing in the document suggests that the funding for FSA – estimated at mind-boggling numbers of U$ 100,000 from IPASA and another US$ 450,000 from an ‘American Association’ of pharmaceutical companies – would be disclosed.
The report concluded by quoting the American lobbyists hired to launch a counter campaign, which states, “Without a vigorous campaign, opponents of strong IP will prevail, not just in South Africa, but eventually in much of the rest of the developing world.”
This is not a solitary example:
The Guardian reported another such incident in July 2013. The article stated that the global pharmaceutical industry has “mobilized” an army of patient groups to lobby against the plan of European Medicines Agency (EMA) to force pharma companies to publish all Clinical Trial (CT) results in a public database for patients’ interest.
While some pharma players agreed to share the CT data as required, important global industry associations strongly resisted to this plan. The report indicated that a leaked letter from two large pharma trade associations, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) of the United States and the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA), have drawn out a strategy to combat this move.
The strategy reportedly demonstrates, as the article highlights, how have the Big Pharma associations drawn the patient groups, many of which receive funding from drugs companies, into this battle.
As I had articulated several times in the past, newer innovative drugs are extremely important in the fight against diseases and this flow must continue, actively supported by a well-balanced Patents Act of the country, as India has already implemented.
That said, the moot question continues to remain, who are these innovations and innovative medicines for? Are these to save precious lives of only a small minority of affluent nations, their populations and other wealthy people elsewhere, depriving a vast majority, across the world, of the fruits of innovation? Would repeated harping on the much hyped phrase, “meeting unmet needs of patients”, negate such gross indifference?
If that is the case, it becomes the responsibility of a Government, keeping the civil society on board, to formulate effective remedial legal measures. The draft national policy on ‘Intellectual Property’ of SA is one such initiative that needs to be applauded.
Surreptitious reported attempts of pharma MNCs, repeatedly, through their respective associations, backed by bagful of ‘resources’ of all kinds to thwart such patient centric moves of Governments, should be deplored with contempt that they deserve.
As Indian scenario is no different, it would perhaps be good to fathom, whether similar surreptitious and high resource-intensives moves are in progress in this country as well.
By: Tapan J. Ray
Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.