Big Pharma Accused Of Patent Plot Of 'Satanic Magnitude' By South African Health Minister

from the fighting-for-their-lives dept

Here on Techdirt we've written a number of times about India's efforts to provide key drugs to its population at prices that they can afford, and how its approach is beginning to spread to other countries. That's a big worry for Western pharma companies, which see their business model of selling medicines at high prices threatened by newly-assertive nations. The latest to join that club is South Africa.

As Brook Baker explains on, the "current South African patent regime is a PhRMA dream":

virtually every drug company patent filed in South Africa, so long as the applicant can fill out the form and pay the filing fee, will be and is granted. No one -- I mean no one -- double checks whether a patent application has any merit whatsoever. No one checks if alleged innovation is in fact new or well known under existing industry practice. No one checks if the patent application impermissively makes numerous claims or duplicates claims made previously. Pfizer could get a patent on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich tomorrow if it wanted to.
But all that is about to change, thanks to a comprehensive reform of the South African patent system. Here's what would happen in the realm of pharma, as described by Baker:
What PhRMA [Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America] doesn't like about the proposed SA reform that SA Draft IP Policy recommends: (1) tightening up patenting standards, (2) examining patent applications vigorously, (3) allowing other parties to oppose patent applications, (4) limiting patent terms to 20 years only, no extensions, (5) disallowing monopolies based on data/registration exclusivity and patent/registration linkage, and (6) adopting easier to use parallel importation and compulsory license mechanisms. Each and every one of these provisions is lawful; each and every one is acknowledged by international bodies including WIPO, the WTO, UNDP, UNAIDS, WHO and others; each and every one is a wise exercise of public authority that -- in accordance with the Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health -- prioritizes public health and access to medicine for all.
Of course, the big pharma companies are preparing to put up a fight against this move. One suggested approach, contained in a document entitled, "Campaign to Prevent Damage to Innovation from the Proposed Draft National IP Policy in South Africa," backfired badly when it was leaked by a public-spirited whistleblower to the South African Mail & Guardian newspaper. Here's the reaction of a senior South African politician after having read it:
Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has accused a group of multinational pharmaceutical companies active in South Africa of conspiring against the state, the people of South Africa and the populations of developing countries -- and of planning what amounts to mass murder.

"I am not using strong words; I am using appropriate words. This is genocide," Motsoaledi told the Mail & Guardian on Thursday, in response to a plan he described as a conspiracy of "satanic magnitude" -- a plan he called on all South Africans to fight "to the last drop of their blood".
Understandably, the pharma companies have backed away from that particular campaign, but as KEI reports, they certainly haven't given up. Nor are they likely to, because the stakes are high. The campaign document explains why quite clearly (pdf):
South Africa is now ground zero for the debate on the value of strong IP protection. If the battle is lost here, the effects will resonate. Clearly [Médecins Sans Frontières] and similar NGOs understand that. A robust public affairs program is necessary to create the environment for a sensible IP policy to be adopted by the [South African] Cabinet and implemented through legislative processes. This program is meant to support -- and lead -- direct lobbying efforts. Without a vigorous campaign, opponents of strong IP will prevail -- not just in South Africa but eventually in much of the rest of the developing world.

In other words, expect the battle over pharma patents in South Africa to turn pretty nasty.

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  1. icon
    TasMot (profile), 21 Jan 2014 @ 11:53am

    I sure hope South Africa didn't sign any of those treaties with the Investor State Dispute Resolution clauses or they will get sued out of existence for daring to try to protect their citizen's health. Silly Politicians!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 21 Jan 2014 @ 12:03pm

    No, that sounds about right

    When you've got companies more interested in how much money they can squeeze out of people than saving the lives of those people, and using bought laws to keep life saving medicines from being available to the very people that need them most, all in the interests of profit, 'mass murder' doesn't really seem to be too far out there when describing it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Jan 2014 @ 12:17pm

    Re: No, that sounds about right

    When it comes to the poor countries, pharma is not concerned about how much they can earn in the country, but they are worried that if the country manufactures cheap drugs it will put a massive downward pressure on their price in the rich countries. This argument is all about preserving its prices in countries that can afford to pay.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 21 Jan 2014 @ 12:24pm

    Re: Re: No, that sounds about right

    Which is still prioritizing profits over lives, so I'd say the argument stands.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Jan 2014 @ 1:03pm

    this is the problem when companies, corporations and industries want to put profits before everything else and everyone else. when politicians are found to be accepting encouragements(s) in return for governmental favors, those politicians should be arrested and tried and that goes for lobbying practices as well. making money out of unnecessary deaths deserves punishment of a similar nature!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Jan 2014 @ 1:06pm


    To be fair, most western countries have some variations over the same theme in their own laws. Since free trade agreements have to have legal requirements covering all parties, it is doubtful they can do anything through trade agreements.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    Mason Wheeler (profile), 21 Jan 2014 @ 3:10pm

    Re: No, that sounds about right

    Yes, exactly, and it's heartening to see a government official stand up and actually say it.

    Now if only someone would say it about Monsanto. They've developed seeds that will grow crops, but the crops they grow have sterile seeds, making Monsanto themselves the only source of new seeds. What's worse, the altered genes involved are dominant, and the plants can interbreed and cross-pollenate with normal crops, meaning that these self-sterilizing seeds can "take over" crops in neighboring fields.

    This isn't ordinary corporate greed; this sounds like something a Bond villain would do! But right now we have the government of Brazil trying to decide whether or not these seeds should be legal in Brazil. The fact that they're even asking a question like that shows just how insane our world has become.

    The question that people should be asking is not "should these seeds be legal or not?" but "should the folks at Monsanto who came up with this (and attempted to market it, etc) be rounded up and put on trial for crimes against humanity or not?"

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Jan 2014 @ 5:09pm

    I'm glad other countries care about the health of their people. Maybe I'll fly to another country to have a surgery. Even with airfare, the surgery, and hospital visit. It would probably be one third the price of US healthcare treatment, or perhaps even less.

    We'll just start exporting our medical patients to other economies. "Free Trade" in action!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    Sheogorath (profile), 21 Jan 2014 @ 8:20pm


    Shouldn't "Campaign to Prevent Damage to Innovation from the Proposed Draft National IP Policy in South Africa" be the name of the campaign in support of the change in the law? Just sayin'.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Jan 2014 @ 11:36pm

    Re: Question

    Only if you're the God of Cha-oh, wait...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    Mik K (profile), 22 Jan 2014 @ 12:20am

    Zero hope for SA

    While this is an awesome response from SA's health minister, I think it's just hot air right now. SA's government is pretty corrupt, so once the big boys start throwing enough dollars at the right ruling party pockets, the health minister will quickly change his tune.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    I'm_Having_None_Of_It, 22 Jan 2014 @ 3:25am

    Re: Re: No, that sounds about right

    That'll happen when the consequences start to kick in - some kind of famine caused by crops that self-sterilise in countries where farmers can't afford to buy seeds from Monsanto and the other farmers have had their crops wiped out via cross-pollination from Monsanto crops.

    India is having problems with this NOW and the mass media is NOT reporting it.

    All we're getting on the BBC is the idea that GM is good and anyone who says otherwise is a flat earth-believing buffoon.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. icon
    Seegras (profile), 22 Jan 2014 @ 5:38am

    Re: Re: No, that sounds about right

    I'd suggest the first thing to do is to take away their weapons of mass diversicide; which means to abolish any and all patents on living organisms and genetic sequences.

    If you want to hit big pharma as well, abolish all patents.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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