South Africa to Decide Whether to Declare National Emergency for Drug Access
The South African government may declare a national emergency to "speed up" access to anti-AIDS drugs, Director-General of Health Ayanda Ntsaluba told South Africa's Sunday Times on Friday. Ntsaluba said that Parliament would discuss the issue Wednesday, adding that the move "would have to come from the president and one would have to look at it carefully. It might not be as straightforward as just standing up and saying it's a national emergency." Specifically, the declaration of emergency would permit the government to issue compulsory licensing to local drug makers authorizing them to inexpensively copy patented antiretroviral drugs, import cheaper generic medicines and replicate the drugs without breaching international trade agreements "because such a move would be accepted by the World Trade Organization." President Thabo Mbeki's spokesperson Bheki Khumalo noted that Mbeki has "taken a personal interest in the question of HIV/AIDS" and confirmed that he would address the issue in Parliament this week. AIDS activists "welcomed" Ntsaluba's announcement, although they cautioned that the move "may be a gambit by Pretoria to force the drug companies to lower their prices or face having their products copied." Treatment Action Campaign head Zackie Achmat said, "We hope this is not a bad chess game between the opposition, the drug companies and the government. It would be to the advantage of all people if the government did handle this as an emergency." Doctors Without Borders campaigner Ellen 't Hoen added that by declaring an emergency, South Africa would "lead the world in the quest for better access to anti-AIDS medicines," with at least two other nations considering issuing compulsory licenses for AIDS drugs. However, Mirryena Deeb, chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers' Association of South Africa, which has opposed the South African government in a court battle over its 1997 Medicines Control Act, said, "If you declare a state of emergency then you can ignore your laws. Why are they so reluctant to use existing law? What are they so scared of?" Legal experts acknowledge the AIDS crisis, but noted that declaring a national emergency should serve as a "last resort," the Times reports (Jordan, Sunday Times, 3/11).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.