When the 39 pharmaceutical companies’ case against the South African government started on 5 March, it ignited worldwide protests against drug profiteering at the expense of the world’s poor.
But during the past five weeks that the court has been in recess, the international pharmaceutical industry mounted a major public relations offensive ‘ with price reductions for AIDS drugs as its centrepiece — that seems to be paying off.
Their message to the United Nations, World Health Organisation and governments lobbied is simple: we’ll cut the prices of HIV/AIDS drugs to the developing world if you support our patent rights and keep out generic manufacturers.
Last week, representatives from the WHO, World Trade Organisation and drug companies met in Norway to discuss “differential pricing and financing of essential drugs”.
But the Nobel-prize winning organisation Medicins sans Frontieres said that the three-day meeting had been disappointing as “no real progress was made to bring drug prices for the essential drugs down”.
While the meeting was closed, insiders reported with shock that Jeffrey Sachs, co-chair of the WHO macroeconomics commission on health, had appealed to activists to drop their campaign for generics and respect patent rights.
Sachs, a vociferous critic of developed nations’ failure to act effectively against the HIV/AIDS pandemic, apparently argued that developing countries should buy their drugs from pharmaceutical companies as they had dropped their prices substantially.
Sachs’ statements come barely a week after UN Secretary General Kofi Annan apparently softened his support for generic medicines after meeting six major drug companies.
After the meeting, Annan said: “The pharmaceutical industry is playing a crucial role. We need to combine incentive for research with access to medication for the poor. Intellectual property protection is key to bringing forward new medicines, vaccines and diagnostics urgently needed for the health of the world’s poorest people.
“The UN fully supports the [WTO’s trade related intellectual property] agreement, including the safeguards incorporated within it. However, the solution does not lie with the pharmaceutical companies alone.”
AIDS activist organisation Act-Up Paris described Annan’s statement as a “turn around” from the UN’s stated support for generic medicines for developing nations.
However UNAIDS representative in South Africa, Richard Delate, said the UN’s commitment to ensuring access to essential drugs for African countries “has not changed”.
Meanwhile, Dr. Harvey Bale, director general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Associations, told the Norway meeting that cheap or even free drugs did not mean much to countries incapable of diagnosing ailments or distributing drugs.
However, this argument has been described as “illogical, demeaning, insulting and disempowering” by Judge Edwin Cameron.
It served to “legitimate a collusive paralysis between governments and international drug companies in which blame-shifting, mutual recrimination and evasion of responsibility has taken the place of immediate and decisive action,” said Cameron.
It is against this background that the pharmaceutical companies’ case against the government resumes in the Pretoria High Court this week.
However, even if government wins the case it will not result in a flood of cheap AIDS drugs into the country as many believe.
The disputed Medicines and Related Substances Amendment Act simply gives government the right to:
buy medicines sold cheaper in another country by its manufacturing company or its licensee;
substitute generics for medicines no longer protected by patents;
establish a pricing committee to ensure transparent pricing mechanisms and to compel pharmaceutical companies to justify the prices they charge.
But the case has focused world attention on the pharmaceutical companies profiteering and this has pressurised many to make significant prices cuts on AIDS drugs.