Johannesburg, 17 April 2001 — At a press conference today, national and international organisations condemned the pharmaceutical industry for continuing to obstruct efforts to improve access to medicines in South Africa. Rejecting industry claims that high profit margins in Africa are essential for research and development (R&D), the organisations also presented the results of a world-wide petition calling on the companies to drop their lawsuit. Since 1998, this suit has blocked implementation of legislation aimed at making medicines more affordable in South Africa.
The international medical relief organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) released the results of a six-week petition drive in which 250,000 people from over 130 countries called on the pharmaceutical industry to drop the case. The petition reflects widespread worldwide anger over the hypocrisy of an industry that claims to be fighting AIDS on the one hand, while actively seeking to undermine government efforts towards providing affordable medicines on the other.
“From 4,000 inhabitants in the slums of Nairobi to celebrities such as Whoopi Goldberg, Carlos Santana, and REM, the world is calling on the companies to drop the case,” said Dr Eric Goemaere, MSF-South Africa. “I challenge the companies to visit our township clinics to see for themselves the suffering caused by their practice of putting profits before people.”
The South African Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), which was accepted as an amicus curiae (friend of the court) in the landmark case, today presented data demonstrating the devastating impact that the high price of medicines is having on South Africa. Over the past year, 250,000 people have died of AIDS related illnesses in South Africa. In the six weeks that the court postponed the case to allow the Pharmaceutical Manufacturer’s Association to provide evidence defending their high prices, 30,000 more people have died of AIDS-related causes, the vast majority of whom did not have access to life-saving medicines.
“The exorbitant prices of medicines in South Africa cannot be justified by the need to finance R&D, given that Africa comprises only 1% of global pharmaceutical sales,” said Zackie Achmat of TAC. “The truth is that public – not only pharmaceutical industry – money has paid for a significant part of the R&D of HIV medicines. The patents for important antiretrovirals such as d4T, ddI, and ddC are held by the US government or academic institutions.” Furthermore, the private sector is investing no significant funding into R&D for diseases that primarily affect developing countries.
MSF also underlined the need for sustainable, legal solutions to ensure access to affordable medicines, rather than ad hoc solutions such as the highly-publicised discounts for AIDS drugs recently offered by multinational pharmaceutical companies.
Oxfam’s Kevin Watkins said: “The principle at stake is clear: who calls the shots? Is the government of South Africa entitled to put the human rights of its people before the commercial interests of powerful companies? Or, do companies get to determine who gets medicines in poor countries? The outcome of the trial in South Africa will set a powerful precedent for developing countries.”