Pretoria, 19 April 2001 — In response to resounding global denunciation of their lawsuit, 39 drug companies today unconditionally dropped the case they pursued for three years against the South African government. The end of the lawsuit clears the path for the 1997 Medicines Act to go into force, allowing importation of affordable medicines and increased use of quality generic drugs.
"This is a real triumph of David over Goliath, not only for us here in South Africa, but for people in many other developing countries who are struggling for access to healthcare. We have been encouraged and strengthened by the support we've received from around the world, and we are especially grateful to the 260,000 concerned citizens and 140 organisations from 130 countries who signed the global "Drop the Case" petition," said Zackie Achmat, head of the Treatment Action Campaign.
The outcome of the case signals a dramatic shift in the balance of power between developing countries and drug companies. It sends a clear message to the African heads of state, who are meeting next week in Nigeria to discuss HIV and other diseases, that lives should and can take precedence over patents.
"Now nothing should stand in the way of countries who want to ensure long-term access to affordable medicines," said Ellen 't Hoen, MSF legal advisor. The outcome of this case will help countries to take full advantage of their rights under international trade rules to make use of pro-health measures such as parallel imports and compulsory licenses. "We don't think the drug companies will be taking another developing country to court anytime soon," she concluded.
A group of African nations have already taken the initiative to defend public health by convening a special session at the World Trade Organisation to examine the impact of international patent rules on health. (This session will take place in Geneva on June 18 at the WTO's TRIPS Council.)
"This is a rare and very meaningful victory of the poor over powerful multinational companies! But our challenge now is to work together with drug producers and government to get medicines to those who need them," said Kevin Watkins of Oxfam.