Pharma plot has consequences for the blind

Marcus Low
Activists campaign to make books more accessible to blind people. Photo by Jim Fruchterman under Creative Commons.
Marcus Low

If a secret plot by foreign pharmaceutical companies and their local subsidiaries to delay South Africa’s IP policy process until after the elections succeeds, non-pharmaceutical sectors will also be affected.

To give one example, the Department of Trade and Industry had indicated that the law reform that will make more books available to blind people could only happen once the IP policy is finalised

The draft IP policy was published in September 2013, with a month and a half given for public comment. Crucially, the policy did not only cover patents on medicines, but also agriculture patents, software, and copyright on books.

All this is being put at risk by the pharmaceutical company plot that would have seen the establishment of a front organisation appearing to be home-grown, but with its strings pulled from the United States. It would have introduced purposefully rigged research into the debate about patents and medicine pricing. The express purpose of this plot, which was to cost about R5m, was to delay the IP policy until after the elections, when a new administration might offer new lobbying opportunities.

Delays in finalizing the IP policy will delay the domestication of a treaty aimed at making more books available to blind people.

Delays in finalizing the IP policy will delay the domestication of a treaty aimed at making more books available to blind people. At present, only between one and five percent of books available to people with normal eyesight are accessible to blind people in South Africa, a situation commonly referred to as the “book famine”. The impact on education and social involvement of blind people because of the book famine is catastrophic. It is one of the reasons why you are more likely to see blind people begging at shopping malls than participating in business meetings.

The draft policy published for public comment in September last year was agnostic on the Marrakesh treaty, which paved the way for easier access to books for blind people. However, in subsequent conversations with officials at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), I have been assured that it is on the agenda. For the Marrakesh treaty to make a difference in the lives of blind South Africans, it first has to be written into our national laws. Before that can happen, the IP policy must be finalised.

When the US consultancy Public Affairs Engagement (PAE) developed the pharmagate plot and when Michael Azrak of Merck endorsed the plan to the pharmaceutical company advocacy organisation, IPASA, they did not care what other consequences their actions would have. Not only were they indifferent to the health of South Africans, they didn’t pause to think what impact their actions would have on devastating problems such as the book famine. If anything, this indifference from their side illustrates why such policy processes must be steered not by narrow interest groups, but by a government acting in the best interests of its people and guided by the Constitution.

This has been one of the most consulted policies in recent South African history.

Those not familiar with the dragged out history of this policy process might argue that we shouldn’t rush into finalising a policy just because there was a plot to delay it. If we were rushing into the policy this view would be valid. However, a draft of the policy with industry comments included already existed in May 2012. That was followed by public meetings such as the Africa IP forum in February 2013, and then the submission to cabinet and the public comment period in September. This has been one of the most consulted policies in recent South African history.

Since 18 October 2013, the DTI has had in its possession comments on the policy from IPASA, NAPM (an organisation that represent the interests of generic pharmaceutical companies, which are often opposite to those of IPASA), academics working in IP, as well as many other interested parties and organisations such as the Treatment Action Campaign, SECTION27 and Médecins Sans Frontières.

Taking all these inputs into account and finalizing the policy is not simple, but it is the DTI’s job to do it. We know from the many public meetings held over the last few years that there are very capable experts from Argentina, Brazil, India and other middle income developing countries that have gone through similar processes, who are willing to provide technical assistance. If the political will is there, the IP policy reform can easily be finalized.

We now have a clear test of the current ANC administration’s commitment to improving the lives of South Africans. If they really care to deliver, they will finalise a good policy before the elections.

Also see Marcus Low’s piece in the Financial Mail this week: Patent plot to deceive.

Low is employed by the Treatment Action Campaign as the editor of two magazines: Equal Treatment and NSP Review.

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