Protesters demonstrate outside Supreme Court in Pretoria, South Africa Monday March 5, 2001 Photograph by Christian Schwetz
Feature story |

South Africa: Big Pharma Backs Down

Photograph by Christian Schwetz
Protesters demonstrate outside Supreme Court in Pretoria, South Africa Monday March 5, 2001 Photograph by Christian Schwetz

On April 19, 2001, people took to the streets and uncorked champagne in South Africa, in celebration of a victory that very emphatically, and very publicly, put patients before profits. Thirty-nine pharmaceutical companies had taken the South African government to court disputing a law intended to protect public health. Their action prompted public outrage worldwide. Support for the South African government poured in...

In 1997, the South African government had passed the "Medicines and Related Substances Control Amendment Act," a law making medicines more affordable by allowing parallel imports (buying the cheapest available patented drug), enforcing generic substitution, and implementing price controls.

Objecting to many of the provisions included in the Act, 39 pharmaceutical companies filed suit to block the legislation. They claimed that the law was unconstitutional and that it violated South Africa's commitments under the World Trade Organization's TRIPS Agreement.

This claim was met with a public outcry at the pharmaceutical industry's desire to put profits before poor people's lives.

Public protests focused on access to antiretroviral treatment: the cost of patented medicines was, at the time, the main obstacle to bringing life-saving treatment to South Africa's 4.7 million people living with HIV/AIDS.

In spring 2001, when the case went to court in Pretoria, MSF launched an international petition calling on the companies to drop the case. Nearly 300,000 people from over 130 countries signed the petition, and other organizations joined in as well. The European Parliament passed a resolution urging the companies to drop the case, a position echoed by ministers from a number of European governments.

Yielding to the powerful combination of public pressure, solid legal arguments, and government resolve, the pharmaceutical companies announced they were unconditionally dropping the lawsuit.

The companies' capitulation was a positive sign not only for millions of South Africans, but for people in developing countries around the world. However, six months later, only a few of the millions of South Africans living with HIV/AIDS are receiving life-prolonging treatment. Work remains to be done, in South Africa and elsewhere.