Fix the Patent Laws Campaign (FTPL) is calling on the government to put a temporary moratorium on granting patents on COVID-19 related products.

FTPL is represented by non-governmental organisations, the Cancer Alliance, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the People’s Health Movement, SECTION27 and the Treatment Action Campaign.

They also want automatic compulsory licensing of COVID-19 related health products with existing or pending patents and for government to urgently reform patent laws to improve access to health products.

The organisations handed over a memorandum of demands to the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition in Pretoria.

Access to healthcare remains a challenge in South Africa, and patent laws make it even harder. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the impact of this as poor countries continue battling to access vaccines.

South African patent laws haven’t changed since the ’70s, prompting activists to rally for the fast-tracking of reforming these laws, more especially with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In its current form, a pharmaceutical company can register a patent for medicine and that patent will allow them to have monopoly over the market for up to 20 years, and then what pharmaceutical companies do is they reapply and apply, change a small aspect of that application, which is called evergreening so that they continue to have monopoly over the market, which influences pricing and access to generics. It also means that they limit other companies coming in that can offer perhaps the same or improve the medicine,” says SECTION27’s Baone Twala.

The need to amend laws 

Although South Africa proposed a patent to waiver on COVID-19 at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) TRIPS council, MSF’s Kate Stegman says these laws are outdated and remain a barrier to equal access to healthcare and now also threaten access to future COVID-19 medicines.

“In SA, we have medication that is not just COVID-19 related. We see TB, HIV, cancer and others. We need to see more affordability. We need better access, particularly now there’s a big debate around vaccination access. If our patent laws were waived in SA and internationally, hopefully, we’ll see more supply of life-saving medicine of diseases over and above that of COVID-19,” says Stegman.

The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) says the government is not showing any will to reform the laws.

“There’s a lack of political will because as civil society, a lot of times, we rally (behind) the government; we support the government in what they are doing. But a lot of times, when we say government now it’s time to do this, that’s when they do a step back to say but there’s still legislative framework they still need to fix. They’re moving around in circles,”  says the TAC’s Tebogo Tenyane.

The group has given the department until 25 March to respond to the memorandum.

COVID-19 Pandemic | Patent laws & access to vaccines: