Yesterday, on World Cancer Day , People Living With Cancer – a South African support group representing thousands of patients – publically signed on to support the Fix the Patent Laws campaign. The campaign aims to ensure access to affordable medicines for all people living in South Africa including those affected by cancer. The campaign was started in November 2011 by the Treatment Action Campaign, Doctors without Borders and SECTION 27.
“Often the price tags on cancer drugs in this country are unacceptably high. Newer, more effective medicines can be so expensive that sometimes they are completely unavailable to patients in the public sector,” said Linda Greef of People Living With Cancer.
“Even private medical aid schemes can refuse to cover the medicine in full because it would raise premiums for all members. The lucky ones are forced to pay out of pocket or battle with medical aid schemes to get access to the right drugs. Others are simply unable to access the medicines that would save or extend their lives.”
Cancer medicines, as with many other medicines in South Africa, are often priced out of reach due to patent barriers. Patents restrict competitors from entering the market, meaning patent holding companies can set the prices arbitrarily high in order to maximise profits.
This means life-saving medicines often remain inaccessible to those in need. Whilst other countries, like India and Argentina, use the safeguards outlined in international law to limit the number of poor quality patents granted, South Africa has yet to change its laws and policy to adopt these legal flexibilities.
“In South Africa, we grant an excessive number of patents on medicines,” said Nkhensani Mavasa, National Chairperson of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC).
“We don’t examine patent applications to ensure they meet our criteria for what is deserving of a patent. This allows pharmaceutical companies to get multiple patents on the same medicine by making small changes, even when such changes have no benefit for patients. What it really means is that prices remain unaffordable for longer and people are dying.”
Latest figures show that 1 in 29 women develop breast cancer in South Africa. Trastuzumab is an effective treatment for early stage patients yet currently it costs approximately R535 860 to treat a patient for a year in South Africa. This is more expensive than several high-income countries, including Belgium, Spain and the United Kingdom.
A potential competitor suggested that the drug could be manufactured for as little as R2 773 per year. While the government is in discussions with Roche to bring down the price, a more affordable version of trastuzumab is unlikely to be available in South Africa in the near future.
The problem with the price of cancer medicines is not just affecting South Africa. Even developed countries like the UK have rejected certain medicines based on their lack of affordability for the National Health Service. Since 2011, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), the UK cost watchdog, rejected the inclusion of at least seven cancer drugs for use within the National Health Service as they were priced too high to be cost effective.
“We are proud to publicly support the fix the patent laws campaign,” Greef said. “The government must urgently fix the patent laws to allow us to access the best medicines at prices that are affordable in this country. The lives of so many people affected by cancer, and many other diseases, depend on it.”
Find out more about MSF in South Africa.
For more information or to arrange interviews, please contact:
Lotti Rutter (TAC) // [email protected] // 081 818 8493
Kate Ribet (MSF) // [email protected] // 07987 22950
Linda Greef // [email protected]. 0824413310
The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) launched the ‘Fix the patent laws’ campaign on November 11 2011 – the ten-year anniversary of the WTO’s Doha Declaration on TRIPS and public health. The campaign aims to draw attention to problems with South Africa’s national patent laws that negatively impact upon access to affordable medicines.