ANC and DA Commit to Patent Law Reform

South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), and the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), have both expressed strong support for reform of South Africa’s patent laws. The parties were responding to questions in the Treatment Action Campaign’s (TAC) People’s Health Manifesto. The manifesto contained 11 health-related questions, of which one asked whether parties are committed to pro-public health reform of South Africa’s patent laws. As far as we know, this is the first time that the ANC has explicitly supported the proposed reforms of South Africa’s patent laws. They state as follows:
 
“The ANC initiated and supports the amendment of South Africa’s Intellectual Property laws in order to protect the right to health and to fully utilise all pro-public health flexibilities that are in the Trade and Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreements available in international law. The ANC-led government is giving urgent attention to this matter, with various departments and other local and international partners collaborating to bring this matter to its conclusion.”
 
TAC welcomes this strong statement from the ruling party and we will remind them of this commitment after the elections.
 
To our knowledge, this is also the first time that the DA has expressed a position on proposed patent law reform. They stated as follows:
 
"• Immediate steps must be taken to prevent pharmaceutical companies from using legal loopholes to extend patents to block competition from affordable generic versions.
• Changes to intellectual property laws must not remove the incentive for investment in research and development that could have significant long term benefits for public health.
• Full use should be made of existing protections under competition law and the mechanisms in existing laws which allows for the issuing of compulsory licenses.
• The DA will support patent law reforms which balance South Africa’s public health needs with necessary intellectual property protections under international law."
 
We particularly welcome the first of the points made by the DA. Prevention of secondary patenting is a key demand of the ‘Fix the Patent Laws’ campaign. We also agree with the need for balance in the patent system – although we recognise that the DA’s understanding of balance may differ from ours.
We stress that the aim of the ‘Fix the Patent Laws’ campaign is not to do away with the patent system. Truly innovative medicines that meet a therapeutic need should still be patented. Our concern is with the high number of poor quality secondary patents granted in South Africa and the inefficient mechanisms with which to revoke such poor quality patents once granted.
 
We also asked the two parties whether they will commit to finalising South Africa’s draft National Intellectual Property policy before the May 7th general elections. It has since become clear that this will not happen. We are deeply disappointed that the current ANC led administration has failed to bring this policy process to a conclusion, especially since it was initiated more than six years ago under the previous administration.
 
We are however heartened that both parties expressed urgency in response to this question. The ANC responded as follows:
 
“The policy will not be finalised before the 2014 elections as there is work that still needs to be done. However, this matter is a priority and work is being done to finalise policy and legislation. The ANC-government will facilitate dialogue and engagements of different stakeholders so as to have a policy that will be acceptable to the majority. That will continue to be a priority in the next term of governance.”
 
We welcome the DA describing the policy process as a “critical health issue”. They responded as follows:
 
“There is an existing policy process aiming to be finalised by April 2014. The DA will participate in all reviews and discussion of this policy and insist on appropriate public consultation around the policy.  This is a critical health issue that must be prioritised by the next parliament.”
 
The TAC will make sure that this issue remains on the agenda until the conclusion of appropriate law reform as required by section 27 of the Constitution of South Africa. While first and second line antiretrovirals may now be reasonably affordable, the same cannot be said for third line ARVs and key medicines for tuberculosis, cancer, and hepatitis C. We cannot allow access to these medicines to be blocked any longer due to our government dragging its feet with patent law reform.
 
For media enquiries please contact:
Lotti Rutter
Lotti.rutter@tac.org.za
081 818 8493
 
TAC will be presenting its full analysis of political party responses to all 11 questions in the People's Health Manifesto at a press conference this coming Thursday at 10am.