Fight against U.S pharmaceutical giant hots up

Vertex Pharmaceuticals monopolises cystic fibrosis medication market. (Photo: supplied)

The fight against biotech giant Vertex Pharmaceuticals is gaining traction in South Africa.  It holds the patent to Trikafta, currently the only effective treatment for cystic fibrosis (CF). The drug is only accessible to wealthy patients in wealthy nations. 

Trikafta is priced at almost R6-million for a year of treatment, putting it out of reach of most CF patients who need lifelong access. Trikfata is a goldmine for the biotech giant. The life-saving drug generated over $7- billion in sales for the company in 2022 alone. Vertex made almost $ 3 billion of Trikafta in the first three months of 2023. And yet Vertex continues to block generic competitors from manufacturing a more affordable alternative.

Saving CF patients’ lives

The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have applied to join the court action to join the fight against Vertex. In February Cheri Nel, a Johannesburg investment banker with CF, brought a compulsory licence application against the firm.

A compulsory licence allows third parties to produce a patented product without the patent holder’s consent. If Nel wins this battle the price of the drug will drop, making it more accessible.

Doctors Without Borders(MSF) Access Campaign Advocacy Advisor Candice Sehoma says they seek to make legal submissions on the broader context of access to medicines in the country. The TAC and MSF were at the forefront of fighting for life-saving HIV treatment, which was deemed unaffordable for most South Africans living with HIV/Aids in the early 2000s.

Patent barriers must fall

“We at MSF have experienced first-hand the impact of patent barriers in the delivery of care to our patients in our projects. In South Africa, we have been advocating for the reform of our patent laws for over a decade to facilitate better access to medicines. To date South Africa’s patent laws still favour pharmaceutical monopolies, preventing access to affordable medicines,” says Sehoma.

Sehoma says this is an important moment for South Africa, as the country has never before issued a compulsory licence, despite having mechanisms in place to do so.

“We believe our work on this could bring weighted evidence of how systemic the issue of patents and access to medicine is, and perhaps bring about the urgency needed to reform our patent laws.”

A court date has not yet been set. – Health-e News.


  • Ndivhuwo Mukwevho

    Ndivhuwo Mukwevho is citizen journalist who is based in the Vhembe District of Limpopo province. He joined OurHealth in 2015 and his interests lie in investigative journalism and reporting the untold stories of disadvantaged rural communities. Ndivhuwo holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Media Studies from the University of Venda and he is currently a registered student with UNISA.

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