'Pharmaceutical firms benefiting from disease, plight of poor'

COSATU plans to put pressure on the government for "the review of intellectual property in drugs".

"Pharmaceutical companies are raking in billions of rands at the expense of the poor," the trade union federation said in its Socio-Economic Report released yesterday. "Even generic drugs are beyond the reach of many poor South Africans. The poor are dying because they cannot access drugs at cheaper rates."

Government, said Cosatu, should make it more difficult for pharmaceutical firms to obtain patents on drugs.

The ministry of health (and the then health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang) was taken to court by large pharmaceutical manufacturers a decade ago about a law that would ignore the patents on drugs for the treatment of HIV-Aids. The suit was eventually dropped by the foreign companies and generic medication was made available.

The government has a right under the World Trade Organisation and the Patent Act to issue a compulsory licence for essential drugs, Cosatu said. A compulsory licence is an authorisation to use a patent without the permission of the patent-holder.

"Congress should make a call for the limitation or removal of patent or monopoly rights on drugs essential for (the) survival of human beings. No company should be allowed to profit from disease and plight of the poor."

Cosatu said the government should "actively be involved in the manufacturing of drugs" and that it should include medication under patent protection. "If we have spent [sic] billions on Gautrain and building stadiums, there is no reason why government cannot manufacture drugs to save lives of the poor."

It referred to the Ketlaphela joint venture that government was already involved in to establish a pharmaceutical plant for the manufacturing of active pharmaceutical ingredients used in anti-retroviral drugs, saying "it is not enough, but is a step in the right direction".

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