The Guardian March 14, 2001


South Africa: Fighting drug company greed

The South African Communist Party (SACP), the Council of South African 
Trade Unions (COSATU) and the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) have joined 
forces in mobilising the support of their members and the whole community 
in a Program of Action against the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association 
(PMA). The PMA is attempting to overturn legislation that would give 
millions of people access to drugs they currently cannot afford.

There were solidarity actions against pharmaceutical companies in France, 
Canada, Germany, Britain, the United States, Australia and elsewhere on 
Monday March 5. The companies are challenging the right of the South 
African Government to put the lives of the poor before transnationals' 
profits.

The PMA has taken the South African Government to court to stop it 
implementing the Medicines Act. A vigil and picket commenced on March 5 
outside the Pretoria High Court where hearings began.

"The Medicines Act deserves the support of all people in South Africa and 
internationally", said a COSATU and TAC joint statement.

"It attempts to improve the health care system by lowering the price of 
essential medicines. This is very crucial for people living with HIV/AIDS 
as well as people with many other serious illnesses. If the PMA succeeds, 
it will be an enormous blow for poor people in South Africa and the 
developing countries".

In 1997 the South African Government passed the Medicines and Related 
Substances Control Amendment Act. The new law introduced a legal framework 
to make medicines more available and affordable in the public sector. It 
introduced four important elements:

1. Generic substitution of medicines  drugs of the same quality and 
active ingredient.

2. A pricing committee  which sets up a transparent pricing mechanism and 
forces drug companies to justify their prices.

3. Parallel importation  which allows the government to import the same 
medicines sold by the same companies, or its licensee, at a lower price in 
another country.

4. International tendering for medicines used in the public sector.

The Act also banned the practice of paying incentives to doctors to 
prescribe expensive brand name medicines.

In 1998 the PMA, representing 39 of the largest transnational 
pharmaceutical companies, took legal action against the government to stop 
the Act.

The PMA won a court injunction blocking the law's implementation by 
claiming that it breached international trade agreements, in particular the 
World Trade Organisation's (WTO) agreement on Trade Related Intellectual 
Property Rights (TRIPS).

Now, three years later, the case has reached the Pretoria High Court.

"During this delay, more than 400,000 people have died of AIDS-related 
illness. Most of them could not afford expensive drugs", the COSATU/TAC 
statement points out.

"In 2000 alone, drug companies around the world made sales of more that 
US$315 billion  more that the gross domestic product of all SADC 
countries. So why are these companies taking the government to court?

"They claim the government is trying to `expropriate or confiscate their 
property' and giving the Minister of Health `too much power'...

"In reality, their main concern is that these measures will have a negative 
impact on their massive profits."

SACP General Secretary Blade Nzimande says that given the level of economic 
development in South Africa and the country's massive public health crisis, 
it is unconscionable that South Africa should pay prices similar to the 
United States of America for its medicines.

Challenged

The legislation challenged by the PMA seeks to correct this through the 
production of generic medicines locally and parallel importation of 
medicines, which is already taking place in Thailand, India and Brazil.

"The big capitalist drug companies are acting to block this so as to 
protect their huge profits at the expense of the health and lives of poor 
people the world over", continued Mr Nzimande.

The South African Government has pointed to some of the huge differences n 
pricing which are killing the poor. For example, the antibiotic 
Ciprofloxican costs South Africa's public health sector US75 cents for each 
tablet, and for private health care providers they are more than US$4.50 
each.

If the new law were to be implemented, a generic of the antibiotic could be 
imported from India for only US6 cents a tablet  a huge saving which 
could have a huge impact on the health of many people.

The SACP says that the only way the country can tackle the massive public 
health crisis, and the deepening racial, class and gender inequalities is 
through an economic transformation led by the democratic government, which 
puts the people at its centre and does not hesitate to tamper with the 
capitalist character of the economy.

"We should not underestimate the importance of the PMA court challenge to 
this legislation. If the PMA wins, then an anti-people precedent will be 
set not only for South Africa but for the whole world and struggles for 
access to affordable medicines will be set back", warned Blade Nzimande.

There is a great deal at stake, not just millions of lives, but the 
question of property rights and the rights of governments to govern in the 
interests of their people.

The South African legislation challenges World Trade Organisation 
fundamentals, in particular, the TRIPS agreement and the ongoing erosion of 
sovereign rights of governments to legislate in the interests of people.

The big pharmaceutical corporations are determined to take on and defeat 
any government which seeks to contain costs and hence hamper their profit-
making.

It is the same corporations that are trying to destroy the Pharmaceutical 
Benefits Scheme in Australia.

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