Doctors Without Borders, Activists Illegally Importing Generic AIDS Drugs Into South Africa
The Treatment Action Campaign and the Congress of South African Trade Unions announced yesterday that they had recently secured a month's worth of generic AIDS drugs from Brazil for a treatment project run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in violation of South Africa's patent laws, Agence-France Presse reports (Agence France-Presse, 1/29). "We are not going to stand for a situation where we would be able to treat twice as many patients as we could by using only patented drugs. As medical professionals, it is our obligation to put the lives of our patients first," MSF spokesperson Toby Kasper said, explaining why the group went ahead with the importation despite the fact that it "could be sued for patent infringement." About 50 patients participating in the MSF treatment project, located in the township of Khayelitsha outside of Capetown, have been taking the Brazilian generic AIDS drugs for about one month (Schoofs, Wall Street Journal, 1/30). The generic drugs -- copies of GlaxoSmithKline's zidovudine and lamivudine and Boehringer Ingelheim's nevirapine -- cost only $1.55 per patient per day compared to $3.20 per day for the patented medications (Agence France-Presse, 1/29).
Representatives from GSK and Boehringer said they are "observing the situation but don't have immediate plans to take legal action." Peter Moore, head of GSK's South African division, said he was "surprised" by the action, especially because GSK has agreed to allowing South African generic drug maker Aspen Pharmacare to produce copies of some of its AIDS drugs. However, the companies have not yet obtained government approval for the agreement, and the drugs are not on the market. Sibani Mngadi, a spokesperson for the South African Department of Health, said that the government will send a team of investigators to the MSF clinic and will "confiscat[e]" the drugs if they were imported in violation of the law. MSF said it "welcome[s]" any investigation, noting that it has approval from the government's Medicines Control Council to use the drugs in a research program. The group also said that it had received a customs waiver allowing the drugs to be imported (Wall Street Journal, 1/30).
Calling for a Declaration of Emergency
MSF, COSATU and TAC, along with the British charity Oxfam, yesterday also urged the South African government to issue compulsory licenses for generic AIDS drugs to allow South African companies to produce or import the drugs without infringing on international patent law (Agence France-Presse, 1/29). The South African government has the power to suspend patent regulations by declaring HIV/AIDS a national health emergency, but it has not yet done so, despite protests from AIDS activists. "We have an unprecedented crisis of death in our country. It is clear what path our government should take," TAC chair Zackie Achmat said, urging the government to demonstrate its "political will" by declaring a national emergency (Nessman, AP/Nando Times, 1/29). South African President Thabo Mbeki has consistently questioned the safety and efficacy of AIDS drugs (Wall Street Journal, 1/30).