South African Health Minister ‘Urges’ WTO to Revise TRIPS to Allow Access to Cheaper AIDS Drugs
South African Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang yesterday "urged" the World Trade Organization to change its Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights agreement at the WTO talks in Qatar next month to allow cheaper AIDS drugs to be made available to the developing world, Reuters reports. The law contains clauses that allow nations experiencing national health emergencies to produce or buy less expensive generic versions of patented drugs, but pharmaceutical companies have been able to protect their 20-year drug patents despite the clauses. Tshabalala-Msimang said that a revised TRIPS agreement "must allow countries from the South to gain better access to affordable medicines to ensure universal health care is not a luxury but a human right," adding that "it is a crime against humanity for poor people to die because life-saving medicines are too expensive." She said that drug makers continue to "intimidate and penalize those countries that explore the use of these legitimate clauses."
Although the South African government in April won a "landmark" lawsuit brought by 39 of the world's largest drug makers over the government's right to import less expensive drugs, the country has not used the TRIPS clause to obtain generic AIDS drugs. Drug companies have offered discounted AIDS drugs for developing countries, including South Africa, but Tshabalala-Msimang criticized these offers, saying, "It is not enough for the drug industry to practice cherry-picking or choose a few drugs which they will offer at a discount or as donations." She said that drug prices can be reduced if developing countries produce generic substitutes of patented drugs through compulsory licensing and begin the parallel importing of cheaper generic versions from other countries. WTO delegates met in Geneva over the weekend to work on a compromise on drugs for developing countries but did not reach an agreement (Swindells, Reuters, 10/29).