Battle Over Generic Drugs, Patents Continues in South Africa, NPR Reports
South African citizens have yet to see the free AIDS-related drugs promised about a month ago by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, and activists are "beginning to take things into their own hands," NPR's Brenda Wilson reported on last night's "All Things Considered." Pfizer had agreed to donate fluconazole, a treatment for AIDS-related oral thrush and cryptococcal meningitis, sold in the United States and South Africa by Pfizer as Diflucan. Wilson explained that fluconazole treatment for oral thrush and meningitis is "routine" in developed countries. But if left untreated, as it often is in countries like South Africa, the fungal infection can "spread to the esophagus, causing discomfort, pain and even death." South Africa's Treatment Action Campaign, an activist group, recently led an effort to import fluconazole to Cape Town from Thailand, where a generic version of the drug is sold "for a fraction of the cost" of Pfizer's patented drug. Although TAC's actions were criticized by South African Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, Dr. Konji Sebati, Pfizer director of public affairs for Africa and the Middle East, said that the company is "not concerned" about generic imports. "Frankly, we said, the more the merrier," Sebati said. Sebati added that TAC's efforts only brought in "a few thousand tablets ... to treat X number of patients. ... We're not going to divert our attention [from] a program that we want to bring in, which is countrywide -- it's a large-scale program. We're excited about it. It's going to treat thousands, tens of thousands of patients throughout the country, not in one clinic somewhere." Sebati also defended pharmaceutical companies in the face of international criticism over high drug prices. "At some point, people have to take a backstep and get out of the hype from enchanting slogans, and look back and see, had it not been for the Pfizers of the world, and the Glaxos and the Mercks, there would be no generic medication." Zakie Achmat, TAC's organizer, recognized Sebati's point of view, but nonetheless criticized the high cost of drugs. Achmat explained that TAC is "not against ... the right to acknowledge people's research and development and appropriate reward for that research and development and investment." Achmat continued, "But what we are against is potent abuse and profiteering at the expense of people's lives, not simply their health, but the expense ... of people's lives." South Africa's Medicines Control Council, the country's drug regulatory agency, also is not "happy" with the activists' efforts to import cheaper generic drugs, but is allowing such practices "under medical emergency provisions," Wilson reported (NPR, "All Things Considered," 1/29). To listen to the full report, enter http://www.npr.org/ramfiles/atc/20010129.atc.15.rmm into your Web browser. Note: You must have an audio player, such as RealPlayer, to listen to the report.This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.