South African PR efforts spark drug controversy


South African drug companies have been accused by advocacy organisations of planning a "deceptive" campaign to delay new laws which could see the introduction of more generic medicines.

The campaign, revealed in leaked documents, was planned to stretch to more than $400,000 (R6 million) and was set-up in protest at proposed changes which the government is currently discussing.

The new laws, outlined by the Department for Trade and Industry (DTI), which WIPR reported on last year, recommend a tiered patent system which could re-introduce pre-grant opposition procedures for pharmaceutical patents.

According to health campaign groups including Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), the reforms could lead to increased production of cheaper generic medicines and reduce the dominance of major pharmaceutical players.

Among the leaked documents which unearthed the campaign is an email sent by South Africa’s representative for pharmaceutical companies, Innovating Pharmaceutical Association South Africa (IPASA).

The email, dated January 10, was sent to a majority of the country’s leading pharmaceutical groups and, according to The Guardian newspaper, talks of "identifying a high-calibre consultancy group to work with us."

The company named is Washington, DC-based Public Affairs Engagement (PAE).

Another leaked document, seen by WIPR, is a plan-of-action by PAE involving placing editorials in newspapers and distracting campaigners in favour of the proposals.

It adds that it will mobilise voices “inside and outside” South Africa to send the message that the proposed policy threatens investment.

The document, called Campaign to Prevent Damage to Innovation from the Proposed Draft National IP Policy in South Africa, also names MSF as one of the companies which had “pressured the government” into “producing the [draft] policy in the first place.”

“... 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," the document says.

PAE did not respond to requests for comment when contacted by WIPR.

In a statement, IPASA’s chief operating officer, Val Beaumont, said it had not engaged PAE to lobby on IP “or any other matter” in South Africa.

“PAE submitted a proposal for a campaign, which was reviewed and subsequently rejected by IPASA members, and no payment or pledge has been made in any respect,” Beaumont said.

Beaumont added: “The draft IP Policy is a matter of vital importance to the future of the healthcare sector in our country … IPASA has participated in the DTI’s public consultation process and has made a written submission to the DTI with respect to the draft national IP policy published last year.

“IPASA has raised questions in the submission on how such existing legislation will be integrated under the proposed policy framework. Innovative medicines from our sector have contributed significantly in improving healthcare and we are committed to working with government into the future.”

Julia Hill of MSF said spending money to “dissuade” the government from pushing legislation that “promotes access to more affordable medicines” was “outrageous.”

Hill also applauded South African health minister Aaron Motsoaledi who criticised the campaign.

Hill added that it was right to “take a stand against pharmaceutical companies that seek to protect their profit margins at the expense of ordinary South Africans.”

However, according to Danie Dohmen, partner at Adams & Adams in Pretoria, the advocacy groups who are “essentially calling for a weakening of the patent system” are themselves “well -funded and have a well-developed” strategy.

"The irony is that it is their advocacy campaign which resulted in the innovator organisations having to consider similar strategies to have their perspectives on the matter heard,” Dohmen told WIPR.

"One of the concerns [with the draft policy] is that some of the proposed policies will result in a weakening of the patent system which is likely to have a negative effect to the long term access to new medicines in South Africa.

“If patent rights are eroded the incentive for manufacturers to seek improved drugs and to bring them to market in South Africa will also be eroded and future South African generations will probably not have access to the required new and improved products.”

Dohmen added: "There is a lot of misinformation on the current South African patent law and its effect on access to medicines. Any campaign which would result in an honest, open, informed and rational discussion on these aspects should be encouraged.

"There is still a long road to go before any of the draft policies find their way into legislation and it is thus important that all interest groups are allowed the opportunity to voice their concerns and for the issues to be properly debated and considered."

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