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.