AIDS Activists picket big pharma summit over South African ‘Pharmagate’

Thursday 13th March 2014

IMG_8912AIDS activists picketed the entrance to the Economist’s pharma summit this morning, demanding an end to industry attacks on South Africa’s patent law reforms. Wrapped in South African flags the protesters lay on the ground as delegates entered the posh Dorchester hotel in London in front of a banner reading: Big Pharma – walking all over South Africans to turn a profit.

The activists say they represented the millions of people living in South Africa who are prevented from accessing medicines because of high prices caused by the current patent laws. The current laws prioritise patents and profits over health and prevent millions of people in South African from accessing affordable treatment. Antibiotic Linezolid, for example, is priced at £37 per pill in South Africa, but is available for just £1.37 in India.

A strategy document, leaked earlier this year, revealed MSD as the ringleader of a secret big-money plot to derail a South African government plan to overhaul the nation’s patent laws. The plot – largely financed with big pharma cash from the US – detailed a sophisticated series of actions designed to resemble a political campaign aimed at stopping the reforms from going through.

Diarmaid McDonald from STOPAIDS, who took part in the demonstration said:

“Inside the Dorchester today are the architects of a shameful attack on the health of poor South Africans. Companies like MSD, Pfizer, Sanofi Aventis and AstraZeneca are discussing how to grow their profits. They have clearly decided an acceptable way of doing that is to block reforms designed to improve public health. In South Africa they tried to hijack the democratic process by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a myth-pedalling campaign to protect their profits at the cost of the lives of people who need access to affordable medicines.

“We’re here to demand that they drop this attack on South African’s right to health. We call on the South African government to press ahead with these lifesaving reforms. MSD and big pharma must stop trying to walk all over South Africans in order to turn a profit.”

IMG_8952The protest was coordinated with a Treatment Action Campaign and MSF action in South Africa where activists are today marching to ask the Department of Trade and Industry to resist pharmaceutical industry pressure and complete the patent reform process before the general elections.

Drug companies have described the battle to block the reforms as “ground zero” in their global battle to tighten intellectual property law. Across the developing world tighter IP laws have led to higher prices and worsening health outcomes, whereas the pro-health reforms opposed by big pharma have reduced prices and increased access in places like India, Thailand and South America.

South Africa does not currently review patent applications, leading to more patents being granted there than in either the US or EU. In 2008 alone, 2442 pharmaceutical patents were granted – almost ten times the number granted by Brazil over five years. Many companies make small changes to their drugs and file new patents in order to maintain their South African monopoly in a practice known as ‘ever-greening’. By reforming the law South Africa can increase access to affordable medicines in the country where over 5 million people are living with HIV and costs of 2nd and 3rd line treatments which are increasingly needed are still prohibitively high.


– STOPAIDS ( is a network of 80 UK agencies working since 1986 to secure an effective global response to HIV and AIDS.

-The leaked Pharmagate plot documents can be read here:

-And here:

-The ‘Fix the Patent Laws’ campaign in South Africa is run by MSF and the Treatment Action Campaign and states: South Africa’s current patent laws put the rights of patent-holders before the rights of patients. The law includes all the worst parts from the international TRIPS agreement on trade and intellectual property, but does not include the parts that we can use to make medicines more affordable. The campaign aims to secure reforms so South Africa fully utilises legal flexibilities in the agreement to improve access to medicines there.

Contact: Diarmaid McDonald 07894455781