STOPAIDS condemn pharmagate plot

Merck walking all over South Africans for profit

STOPAIDS today urged the multinational pharma company to drop their opposition to South Africa’s plans to improve access to affordable medicines.

A strategy document, leaked last month, revealed Merck as the ringleaders 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. It was described by SA Health Minister Aaron Motsloaledi as “genocide”.

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.

The current laws massively 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. Diarmaid McDonald from STOPAIDS said,

“Merck and over a dozen other big pharma companies tried to hijack the democratic process in South Africa 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 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. Merck and big pharma must stop trying to walk all over South Africans in order to turn a profit.

“We also call on the UK government to defend South Africa’s right to reform their laws for the benefit of their people. This is a perfectly legal move, well within rules agreed by the WHO and WTO, designed to increase access to medicines. With DFID pulling out of South Africa it is even more important the UK defends South Africa when it tries to make these pro-health reforms.”

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.

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