Misanet.com / IPS, 20 April - International pharmaceutical companies Thursday dropped their legal challenge to South African legislation that allows the government to import cheaper anti-AIDS drugs and said they would pay the legal costs of the South African government.
The news brought loud cheers from inside and outside the Pretoria High Court, where anti-AIDS activists had gathered in support of the government. The case against the Medicines Act was dropped the same day hearings were to begin.
The action by the companies clears the way for the government to import cheaper anti-AIDS drugs, even if international companies hold the rights to manufacture and market the medicines in South Africa. With an estimated 4.7 million people infected with HIV the virus that causes AIDS, South Africa has more people living with the disease than any other country in the world.
However, at a press conference after the case ended, the Director General of the Department of Health, Dr Ayanda Ntsaluba, was quick to warn that cheap anti-AIDS medicines would not be immediately available to patients in government hospitals. The South African government has repeatedly expressed its reservations about the cost and safety of making anti-AIDS drugs widely available.
However, government has made it clear it will quickly move to put in place the mechanisms and regulations necessary for it to import cheaper copies of anti-AIDS drugs.
While the companies have unconditionally withdrawn their suit, the Minister of Health, Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, said they had been invited to participate in drawing up the regulations that would govern the implementation of the legislation.
In a statement she added: "We regard today's settlement as a victory in the sense that it restores to us the power to pursue policies that we believe are critical to securing medicines at affordable rates and exercising wise control over them. We have undertaken to include pharmaceutical manufacturers in such initiatives, where appropriate, and we fully intend to pursue this course of action."
- While the South African Government's drug policy was driven mainly by domestic factors, we never lost sight of the international dimension and we hope our experience has contributed in some way to the larger debate on access to affordable health care for developing countries and for the poor in wealthier nations.
- The resolution of this court case only confirms our view that international markets, which play an increasingly important role in all our lives, have no in-built conscience. But governments and ordinary people acting collectively have a precious responsibility to make the huge companies that dominate the markets accountable for how they respond to the most critical issues of our times.
Mirryena Deeb, a representative of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association, which had brought the case against the government on behalf of the drug companies, said the organisation was pleased with the outcome. She said an understanding with government had been reached and the government would respect patent rights.
Deeb added that adherence to the agreement about patent rights was vital to ensure the continued manufacture of innovative drugs, such as a possible cure for AIDS.
South Africa's Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) chairperson, Zackie Achmad, described the development as a victory for poor people, particularly those living with HIV/AIDS and who cannot afford drugs. TAC has been a vocal supporter of the government in the case, despite deep differences with the Department of Health about how best to tackle the AIDS epidemic in South Africa. TAC has been pressuring the government to make anti-AIDS drugs widely available to people living with the disease.
British charity Oxfam has reportedly hailed the withdrawal of the legal action against the government, describing it as a great victory for the people of South Africa. However, it warned that the fight to make cheaper anti-AIDS medicines available in the developing world was not yet over, citing a similar lawsuit being brought against Brazil by international drug companies.
Oxfam has attributed the companies' change of mind to growing pressure from aid agencies and the public, across the world.