A coalition of 64 civil society organisations issues a joint statement calling for greater transparency on medicine prices. Picture: 123RF/OLEKSANDRA NAUMENKO
A coalition of 64 civil society organisations issues a joint statement calling for greater transparency on medicine prices. Picture: 123RF/OLEKSANDRA NAUMENKO

Health activists have called for greater transparency from the pharmaceutical industry, as a meeting on medicine prices convened by the World Health Organisation (WHO), gets under way in Johannesburg.

The three-day Fair Pricing Forum, which the WHO is jointly hosting with the government, is looking at how to balance the needs of the pharmaceutical industry and the health systems that pay for their drugs.

A coalition of 64 civil society organisations issued a joint statement on Thursday calling for greater transparency on medicine prices, and the research and development costs incurred by pharmaceutical companies.

The coalition includes the Fix the Patent Laws campaign, which consists of 42 South African civil society organisations including Section 27, the Treatment Action Campaign, the Cancer Alliance, and Doctors without Borders (MSF).

“The system lets them [pharmaceutical companies] hide what countries pay, and it allows them to charge what they want,” said MSF advocacy officer Candice Sehoma. “We need transparency to empower and inform [the] governments when they negotiate prices,” she said.

The high price of medicines is a global issue, and SA is no exception, she said. While SA had made strides in driving down the price of the HIV drugs, patients were still confronted with unaffordable prices for medicines for other diseases, such as cancer, she said.

Sehoma cited the multiple myeloma drug lenalidomide as an example of a “prohibitively expensive” cancer drug. It is currently only available in SA as Celgene’s patent-protected product Revlimid, as no generic rivals have been approved by the SA Health Products Regulatory Authority.

“It is priced at R69,000 a month and may be required for the rest of your life. A generic version is available in India for about R3,900 [a month],” said Sehoma.

A small number of patients were currently accessing the generic version, by importing it under special provisions in the Medicines Act. Section 21 of the Act allows the importation of an unregistered medicine that is approved by another medicines regulator, but it has to be done on a patient-by-patient basis.

The activists said many medicine prices remained high in SA because the government’s “industry-friendly” patent laws impeded generic competition. SA had also failed to regulate the launch price of medicines, they said.

They called for full disclosure of the research and development costs throughout the drug discovery process, and a revision of the WHO’s definition of a fair price to include a consideration of the role public funding may have played in developing a drug.

“This must be considered in defining fair prices to ensure the public does not pay twice and receives a public return on public investments,” they said.

kahnt@businesslive.co.za