The bitter pill in S.Africa’s patent reform system - CNBC Africa

The bitter pill in S.Africa’s patent reform system

Southern Africa

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“I didn’t take aim at anybody, rather they [the pharmaceutical companies] took aim at us. They took aim at the government, took aim at the democratic process. They took aim at the sovereign state to try and change its policies,” Motsoaledi told CNBC Africa.

“Overall they took aim at not only people in South Africa, in the whole developing world that they [now] cannot have access to affordable life-saving drugs. That is what this is all about. It is them who are taking aim at us.”

Motsoaledi’s reaction comes after it was discovered that a coalition of multinational pharmaceutical companies operating in the country plan to prevent the reform.

Preventing the reform will force South Africa and the health system to continue buying patented drugs are high prices, to the benefit of the companies who own the patents. No reform will also mean that gaining access to generic drugs will be equally difficult.

Motsoaledi has since accused the pharmaceutical companies of conspiring to commit mass murder. This is as continuing to buy pharmaceutical drugs from expensive patent holders will slowly start to narrow access to the drugs, and also even more expensive on the market.


“Internationally, chemical and biological warfare are banned by the United Nations. Biological warfare is when you introduce biological organisms into a country to kill people in large numbers. A sophisticated way of doing that is not to introduce biological organisms but just removing anything that will protect people from those biological organisms,” Motsoaledi explained.

“In other words, expose them to TB, HIV/AIDS, meningitis, to all the things that can kill, other than biological organisms. Making treatment unreachable, it will have the same effects.”

He added that the face of the coalition campaign would appear to be coming from South Africa, but will in fact be controlled by a private company in the United States.

The Department of Trade and Industry had published a framework on a new reform policy in September, illustrating the aim of attempting to loosen patents. This would allow for cheaper access to crucial drugs.

Since the discovery of the pharmaceutical companies’ plans, the coalition has claimed that the document that presented the findings is a mere draft, and has not yet been formally documented since being exposed.


Healthcare systems running on a combination of patented and generic drugs is however not a new concept, and one that South Africa will not be the first country to do.

“The World Trade Organisation was established in 1995, and came up with TRIPs, Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights, to say anybody who has made an innovation must be given a patent for 20 years.  Then they put what are called TRIPs flexibilities, and said countries must incorporate this in their laws and their policies to protect their citizens,” Motsoaledi said.

“We accept the issue of patents, we respect it. This law is not about to remove patents. It’s about how you protect people in the situation where there are certain needs for that particular country.”

If a country is unable to afford crucial drugs from an expensive patent holder, TRIPs flexibilities allow for a country to buy from another drug manufacturer who might not have a patent, but have the necessary drugs.

India, also known as the pharmacy of the developing world, is instrumental in the survival of millions of South Africans.

This is as the country can provide cheaper and generic anti-retroviral drugs. Today, roughly 80 per cent of South Africans are on antiretroviral treatment medication from India.

The framework to loosen drug patents will therefore be beneficial and well received by South Africa if it eventually turns into a bill.

The country’s proposed National Health Insurance (NHI) system will however have to be past its pilot stage as new policies are introduced to the country’s healthcare system.


“The aim of the National Health Insurance is the same as Obamacare in the Unites States, same as the National Health System in Britain, which has been there for more than 60 years,” said Motsoaledi.

“The aim is that every citizen must have a right to access, to good quality affordable healthcare. That access must not be determined by the socio-economic conditions of the individual.”

A number of pilot schemes have been implemented to test how well the system will work, but this has come with a number of challenges, such as discovering that the quality of the present healthcare system is substantially poor.

“In our pilot [programme], we concentrate on improving quality, as in infrastructure, human resources, primary healthcare. At the moment, the plans are going on very well. We’ll roll them out very soon,” Motsoaledi explained.

“For instance, in each pilot, what we have done is go to every clinic, every hospital, send engineers there, let them put very clearly what needs to be done to produce good infrastructure.”

A significant amount of money will have to be budgeted for more pilot programmes, as well as on the NHI itself, which is a process that will be implemented over 14 years.

“NHI is not an event. It’s a process, a revolution. It goes on. If you go to the UK now, NHI was established in 1948 [and] up to now, they’re still tweaking [and] changing things. [NHI] is something that gradually happens and in our case, we’re giving ourselves 14 years for people to start seeing it,” said Motsoaledi.