Jan 19 2014, 3:09am CST | by Forbes
Once again, South Africa is shaping up as a key battleground for the pharmaceutical industry and its hopes for protecting patents. And the latest skirmish is threatening to turn into yet another public relations problem for drug makers, which are being accused by the Health Minister of planning “genocide” against his citizens.
The newest conflagration can be traced to a draft policy issued last September by the South African government to revise rules for governing intellectual property. If implemented, the guidelines would allow for greater production of low-cost generics, which the government wants to make more widely available.
Patient advocacy groups had complained that South Africa has not amended its patent laws to incorporate or implement the 2001 WTO agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS, which offers compulsory licensing as an option to countries to make patented drugs more affordable.
The initiative, however, has struck a sensitive nerve with drug makers, which have already fought some celebrated battles over patent rights elsewhere – notably, in India, where the government has the pharmaceutical industry in knots over its application and interpretation of patent laws and international trade rights.
The draft policy comes more than a decade after South Africa figured prominently in the battle over AIDS drugs. Several global drug makers filed a lawsuit to prevent the country from allowing low-cost generics of AIDS medicines to be made, a move that backfired when the industry encountered widespread criticism for a strategy that emphasized profits at the expense of a growing number of sick people.
This is yet another reason why industry reaction to the draft policy is being closely watched. And a recent proposal made by a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm to industry trade groups in the US and South Africa is lending an air of déjà vu. The proposal, which reportedly would cost about $450,000, spells out a somewhat covert plan for blunting what could become a “weak intellectual property regime.”
“If the principles in the draft (policy) are adopted,” the proposal warns, “not only with South Africa become less hospitable to the life sciences sector, it may also provide the model for other developing nations, inside and outside Africa, including such important aspiring economies as India and Brazil.
“…South Africa is now ground zero for the debate on the value of strong intellectual property protection. If the battle is lost here, the effects will resonate… Without a vigorous campaign, opponents of strong intellectual property will prevail – not just in South Africa, but eventually in much of the rest of the developing world.”
The proposal suggests forming a coalition called ‘Forward South Africa’ that would be directed from Washington and work toward delaying and, ultimately, modifying the draft policy. The coalition would try to emphasize a connection between wealth and health – strong intellectual property rules can bolster the economy.
At the same time, the proposal also suggests pushing back against non-governmental organizations by arguing that the central health issue in South Africa is poor infrastructure, and not drug pricing or a subsequent lack of access to medicines. In this way, the nature and tone of the debate would be changed (here is the proposal).
The proposal never mentions anything about withholding access to medicines, directly buying influence or any illegal activity. Just the same, the initiative prompted criticism from such advocacy groups as Doctors Without Borders and Treatment Action Campaign (see here and here).
But the harshest response came from South African Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, who accused multi-national drug makers of conspiring against the country. “This document can sentence many South Africans to death. That is no exaggeration. This is a plan for genocide,” he told The Mail & Guardian.
“They are not hoping to influence government. They are hoping to influence society to turn against government. If you read carefully what they are saying, they want to prove to patients that the lack of access to medicine has nothing to do with intellectual property, but everything to do with incompetence of the government.”
For their part, the trade groups have quickly distanced themselves from the proposal, which was made by Public Affairs Engagement, a firm that is headed by former US Ambassador James Glassman, a former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs in the George W. Bush administration.
For instance, the Innovative Pharmaceutical Association of South Africa issued a statement yesterday saying it has “not engaged” PAE to “lobby on intellectual property or any other matter… PAE submitted a proposal for a campaign, which was reviewed and subsequently rejected by IPASA members, and no payment or pledge has been made in any respect.”
Similarly, the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America denied “engaging outside parties to assist us, (but) we will do our best to make sure that our voice and others who believe that strong intellectual property protections are in the best interest of South Africa are part of the dialogue. Conducting advocacy of this nature is a way of participating in the democratic process.”
Both trade groups added that they support the “broad objectives” found in the South African draft policy, and that may be so. But even though drug makers may have legitimate concerns about patent protections, they will have to find different ways to get their messages across without seeing their plans backfire and cause the sort of public relations problems that previously haunted them for years to come.
Source: Forbes Business
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