Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

Jasson Urbach’s article (Give automatic approval to drugs recognised in advanced countries, October 5) refers.

Before free marketeers and cheerleaders for the pharmaceutical industry presume to dole out advice to activists and other advocates working for improved access to medicines, they would do well to do some homework on the impact of patent laws on medicines pricing.

It is particularly rich as these "analyses" take place far removed from the realities of poor (and, I might add, better-off) people who daily face death because medicine prices are unaffordable — a fact the article conspicuously fails to address.

The writer is misguided on several counts.

It is disingenuous to lay the blame for the problem of unaffordable medicines at the door of the Medicines Control Council (MCC). Sure, the MCC has its difficulties of capacity, resources and backlogs in the approval process, but this factor pales in comparison with the machinations of the rapacious pharmaceutical industry that free marketeers are so ready to defend.

Where was the Free Market Foundation’s voice when a significant lobby of the pharmaceutical industry attempted to unconstitutionally derail, through conspiratorial methods, the government’s intellectual property reform process in the infamous "pharmagate" scandal a few years ago?

Second, the argument against evergreening may be tiresome for apologists of profit-seeking industries, but the facts support the very real threat to access of SA’s lax patenting standards under the depository system, which does not conduct substantive examination to ensure adherence to the standards required by the law.

The study released last week by the Fix the Patent Laws Coalition, which was handed to the government at the march, documents several instances of price-gouging enabled and perpetuated by SA’s liberal resort to granting secondary patents, irrespective of whether they satisfy the criteria of novelty, inventiveness and industrial applicability.

For example, the branded version of the biological medicine trastuzumab, used in the treatment of breast and other cancers, is sold in the private sector in the basic dosage for R485,800 for a 12-month course. This is on the back of a 20-year monopoly that excludes competition and whose original patent expires in 2020.

The originator company had applied for, and obtained, several secondary patents which extend its monopoly to 2033 — a period of exclusivity of some 33 years.

In India, where the law proscribes such evergreening practices, an equivalent biosimilar product markets for less than one-third of the price asked of South African cancer sufferers.

The study documents similar results for selected treatments for various conditions such as HIV infection, TB, hepatitis C and epilepsy.

It is interesting to note, also, that one of the patent offices the writer suggests should be referenced, namely the European Patent Office, has, against form, revoked a secondary patent for a lower dose of trastuzumab.

So what the writer is asking for is to give the obvious beneficiaries of the patent system, whose profits regularly place them among the top 10 of Fortune’s rankings, greater freedom to game the patent system and extend their profit-seeking monopolies at the expense of the ill, vulnerable and poor in our country.

Who’s fooling who here?

Prof Yousuf Vawda
University of KwaZulu-Natal

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