March 5: "Global Day of Action Against Drug Company Profiteering," as Pharmaceutical Companies Sue South Africa to Block Low-Cost Medicines
January 26, 2001
On March 5 a lawsuit by several dozen international pharmaceutical companies against the government of South Africa is scheduled to go to trial. For three years already this lawsuit has prevented South Africa from implementing post-Apartheid reform of its medicine laws. The case has been little known in the U.S., except for a flurry of publicity for the pharmaceutical companies when they said they were suspending it. South Africans pointed out that suspending the lawsuit (instead of dropping it) still left them unable to implement their medicine-law reforms -- and that the companies could resume the case at any time.
On January 19 the Treatment Action Campaign, the leading AIDS activist organization in South Africa, called for global day of mobilization and protests on March 5, to bring attention to the lawsuit and the issues behind it. For more information, and initial U.S. contacts for activists, see below.
South African Law at Issue
The companies' major objection is a short part of the law, Section 15C, which we quote in full:
The minister may prescribe conditions for the supply of more affordable medicines in certain circumstances so as to protect the health of the public, and in particular may-
(a) notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in the Patents Act, 1978 (Act No. 57 of 1978), determine that the rights with regard to any medicine under a patent granted in the Republic shall not extend to acts in respect of such medicine which has been put onto the market by the owner of the medicine, or with his or her consent;
The pharmaceutical companies object that Section 15C does not protect their medicine patent rights. The whole continent of Africa accounts for less than 1.5% of the global market in pharmaceuticals, and the companies have made little effort to market their expensive medications there. Most observers believe that these companies are less worried about loss of income from Africa than about the creation of precedents which might hurt them elsewhere -- especially in the United States, where huge amounts of drugs are sold at some of the worlds' highest prices, as the government does not require or negotiate pharmaceutical prices for its citizens, as governments of other industrialized countries do.
Last year 2.4 million people died of HIV infection in Africa; fewer than one in a thousand Africans infected with HIV get modern treatment. The companies have responded with much-criticized discount programs, to be negotiated separately for each country, almost certainly in return for the countries giving up rights to use generic equivalents or other measures which could save the lives of their citizens. These negotiations are some of the most unequal in history, since delays can cost the countries the lives of thousands of people, while the companies have nothing to lose from delay except for the risk of looking bad in the media. Recently the former deputy director of UNICEF called these negotiations, "a farce; they redefine the meaning of bad faith." ("J'accuse!: The West is willfully turning its back on the greatest human tragedy of our age," by Stephen Lewis, The Globe and Mail, Canada, January 26, 2001).
TAC Call for Global Day of Action against Drug Company Profiteering
[Note: We omitted some sections specific to South Africa, and marked the omissions with '...'.]
Mobilize Globally and Locally against Drug Company Power!
2001 promises to be one of the most critical years for access to HIV/AIDS treatments. In South Africa, the year will witness attempts by multinational drug companies to take the South African government to court for trying to make medicines affordable for all people. TAC will continue its Christopher Moraka Defiance Campaign against Unjust Trade Laws and Patent Abuse. TAC will demand that the government increase its health-care and welfare budgets substantially to deal effectively with HIV/AIDS...
Mobilize Local and Global Action against Drug Companies
The drug companies -- GlaxoSmithKline, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Boehringer Ingelheim, Merck, Abbott and many others -- will try to stop the South African government's attempt to make medicines affordable to all its people. The law passed by the country's first democratic Parliament under the leadership of former President Mandela is now under attack. TAC calls on all people to oppose the drug companies and to support the legislation...
Global Action March 5 - March 12, 2001
... TAC calls on people in every country to mobilize against drug company profiteering on Monday 5 March 2001. On this day, the action by more than 40 multi national drug companies against the South African government will be heard in the Pretoria High Court. Millions of people will die from HIV/AIDS and other illnesses, if the drug companies succeed in their action. TAC specifically calls on our allies Médècins Sans Frontiéres, Health Gap Coalition, ACTSA and all the organizations who endorsed to Global March for HIV/AIDS Treatment Access to mobilize. A victory for the drug companies in this case will set back the struggle for access to essential medicines in all countries. TAC will mobilize actions against drug companies throughout the week 5-12 March 2001...
U.S. Contacts for March 5 Mobilization (as of January 28)
For More Information
The pharmaceutical industry's case for opposing Section 15C is stated in Submission of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhARMA) for the National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers, 2001 (November 27, 2000), section on South Africa (pages 150-152); it is currently available at: http://www.phrma.org/intnatl/news/2000-11-27.23.pdf (PDF).
Copyright 2001 by John S. James. Permission granted for noncommercial reproduction, provided that our address and phone number are included if more than short quotations are used.
This article was provided by AIDS Treatment News. It is a part of the publication AIDS Treatment News.