The global AIDS epidemic is one of the greatest threats to security and development in the world. Millions of people in developing countries are dying of AIDS, TB and malaria - while the first world sits idly by. High prices of medicines, protected from competition by patent law, make it impossible for poor people to protect themselves against illness and death.
For these reasons, South Africans today join hands with their Canadian brothers and sisters in welcoming the Canadian government's announcement to amend patent law to allow for the export of generic medicines to developing countries. We strongly believe that if properly implemented, this brave step will make a significant contribution towards ensuring a sustainable supply of affordable essential medicines in the developing world.
As organisations that have actively participated in the campaign for access to treatment for people living with HIV/AIDS, South Africa's Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and AIDS Law Project (ALP) recognise the symbolic and practical significance of Canada's commitment to global public health. We also salute the work done by organisations such as the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and individuals such as UN Special Envoy Stephen Lewis. Their efforts are an encouragement to people living with HIV/AIDS in South Africa where more than 600 deaths occur daily as a result of the epidemic.
The agreement reached at the World Trade Organization (WTO) on 30 August 2003 has its shortcomings. But despite this it goes some way towards ensuring that developing countries with no pharmaceutical manufacturing capacity will be able to access affordable medicines. The new rules are not restricted to public health emergencies, but rather apply to all public health problems. The rules are also not limited to public non-commercial use, important in the developing world where most drug expenses are borne by poor people themselves. In amending its patent law, Canada is urged to give full effect to these important public health safeguards.
Canada's move to expand access to essential medicines is important for three key reasons. First, as producing countries (such as India and Brazil) implement their TRIPS obligations and provide full patent protection for pharmaceutical products, the supply of generics will inevitably dwindle. To ensure a sustainable supply of generics, more countries must be able and willing to produce for export. The greater the number of producing countries, the more likely generics will be available for import.
Second, increasing the number of generic products available promotes the financial sustainability of treatment programmes through competition.
Third, few developing countries have made use of their existing laws to increase access to essential medicines. Those with powers to issue compulsory licenses for import or local production have failed, or been scared, to act. Even fewer have taken legislative steps to amend their patent laws so as to take full advantage of the public health flexibilities and safeguards permitted under international law. As a member of the G7, Canada's move can only serve as an example to other countries to make full use of the access provisions in the WTO's rules on patents.
Canada's move comes at a time when the South African government is in the final stages of developing its national antiretroviral treatment (ART) plan. Only yesterday, the National HIV and AIDS Treatment Task Team presented its detailed operational plan and implementation schedule in respect of a national ART programme to the Minister of Health.
In our submissions to the Task Team, we recommended that the operational and implementation plan should commit the state to making full use of its powers under domestic and international law--if necessary--to ensure access to a sustainable supply of affordable medicines. We trust that the amendment proposed by the Canadian government will embolden South African policy makers as they finalise and implement our much awaited and needed national HIV/AIDS treatment plan.
For more information, contact:
Mark Heywood AIDS Law Project head and TAC National Treasurer firstname.lastname@example.org +27(0)83.634-8806
Zackie Achmat TAC Chairperson email@example.com +27(0)83.467-1152
Issued by: Jonathan Berger Law and Treatment Access Unit AIDS Law Project Centre for Applied Legal Studies University of the Witwatersrand Private Bag 3 WITS 2050 SOUTH AFRICA
+27(0)11.717-8627 (direct) +27(0)11.403-2341 (fax) +27(0)83.419-5779 (cell)